Monday, November 12, 2012

God and Science: The Ironic Theophany

What has science done to God? Atheists would like to think that science has made not just theism but all myths obsolete. But neither atheists nor scientists need be such philistines. What scientific discoveries have done is to turn the page on theistic fictions, leaving us with just blank pages. Postmodernists could use a good story, one that gives meaning to the world science has shown us and that leads us in a worthwhile direction. I think this postmodern myth can be found in a certain unsettling vision of the death of God. Before I come to that, however, I’d like to go over some highlights of the Western history of science’s relationship to God.

Medieval Animism

Let’s begin with the medieval picture of God. The fall of the Roman Empire brought to medieval Europe chaos, ignorance, disease, and thus infantilized the desperate masses. The socialism of feudal society, in the lower classes’ dependence on the largesse of the decadent aristocrats, was pragmatic as opposed to arising out of adherence to the New Testament. Oligarchies were needed to maintain a fragile social order, and the desperation to avoid the complete removal of the social barriers against the wilderness, that is, against the natural forces that are opposed to life, led also to an ironic self-indulgence. The masses that lived in squalor, eating gruel and owning practically nothing nevertheless compensated for their poverty by settling on a na├»vely anthropocentric worldview.

The Church comforted medieval Christians with children’s tales, springing from Aquinas’s synthesis of Aristotelianism and paganized Judaism (Catholic Christianity). Aquinas replaced Aristotle’s impersonal Prime Mover with the Christian God, and thus simplified Aristotle’s teleological metaphors. According to Aristotle, every event has a purpose, a so-called final cause, and thus nature can be explained as though it were intelligently designed even though it’s not; instead, everything in nature has a destiny given its way of being attracted to the Prime Mover, to a sort of cosmic magnet that starts and ends all natural processes. Aristotle’s naturalism thus anticipated Darwin’s zombification of nature. Aquinas literalized and personified Aristotle’s undead teleology, since the Christian God is not just a person but literally a particular human being named Jesus. Aquinas thus enchanted the undead leviathan, infusing the undying corpse--which displays signs of monstrous pseudolife--with actual life. In the medieval view, instead of the mere appearance of mind throughout nature’s evolution of patterns, there are good and evil spirits animating all changes so that the cosmos becomes a super-organism, a colossal living body made up of a host of other living things.

And thus the fear of the wilderness was neutralized by rampant animism, by literalistic Christianity’s bastardization of Aristotelian naturalism. Medieval Europe lacked the economic prosperity that generates the arrogance needed to study nature objectively, because naturalism opens the floodgates to horror and angst, which are the authentic emotional responses to our real position in nature. The peasants were like homeless children who needed reassurance that even though the pax romana was no more, God was still with them--through Jesus and the Church, to be sure, but also throughout the whole world: even when a peasant is forced daily to trudge through mud, a sorry spectacle depicted so vividly in the movie, Monty Python and The Holy Grail, God is present in the purpose of that filth. In medieval Christianity, God is omnipresent, not directing from afar but animating everything from within by means of spiritual extensions of himself. It’s hard to see how this animism could have comforted anyone during the Black Death, but the alternative was surely worse: at least if there are demonic forces that cause the evil in the world, those forces can be overcome in familiar ways, by social alliances and negotiations through prayer. Evil creatures can be reasoned with and thus rehabilitated or else punished.

The Modern Machine

Still, the Plague wiped out around a third of the Christian population and discredited the Church, since the clergy couldn’t cure the victims or explain the causes. Eventually, the remaining population prospered because of the decline in competition. At the same time, there was an influx of classical and eastern ideas, thanks to the rediscovery and proliferation of ancient texts. The revelation that such advanced art was possible in the ancient past shamed medieval Christians and led to the humanist movement, which is to say to greater pride in our secular capacity to lead rich and fulfilling lives. The merchants wanted to show off their new wealth with both outward and inward signs of their status. Thanks to their patronage, niches were thus opened up for advances in art, philosophy and science. In effect, the easing of competition in the present, due to the Black Death, created a new competition between the present and the past, as those who for centuries had suckled at the Church’s teat like terrified babies, jealously vied with ghosts of the ancient Greeks for cultural supremacy. And so the Italian Renaissance led to the Reformation of the Church and to the Scientific Revolution.

Comparing medieval and modern rationalism is instructive. The medieval rationalists were the scholastics, who were pragmatic centrists much like postmodern American liberals. The scholastics wanted to maintain the status quo, arguing implicitly that without the Church, Western civilization would have ended after the collapse of ancient Rome. And so the scholastics bent reason in the service of that goal, to defend the Church at all costs. (Likewise, postmodern liberals can no longer seriously formulate their policies in terms of normative progress, because a postmodernist has no faith-based myths and thus no inspired ideals. Thus, these liberals are technocratic systems-managers, like President Obama, and the system they manage tends to be oligarchic, that is, profoundly anti-liberal--for the majority, at least.) Of course, the scholastics’ pragmatic argument was shown to rest on a false dichotomy, since social and intellectual progress did occur in the modern period.

By contrast, modern rationalists were devoted to their methods, to their algorithms, not to any institution. These rationalists were both highly conservative and liberal: they trusted only what their senses directly showed them or what could be logically or mathematically inferred, but they were more willing than their afflicted predecessors, than the scholastics and their peasant charges, to follow their inquiries wherever their senses and their reasoning took them, even if this meant peaking behind the mask we place on nature’s monstrous visage, thus threatening social stability and sanity. Because of the naturalistic fallacy, no prescriptions are licensed by empiricist rationality, especially if you’re assuming the modern, Cartesian dualism between facts and values. The senses reveal only factual things and events, not goodness or badness, and there’s no alchemy that transmutes factual premises into moral laws. Thus, modern rationalists drained the life from the medieval super-organism and reduced the Thomistic “final cause,” the natural event’s purpose, to the meaningless mechanistic cause. At least, this is what they did in their exoteric work; on the surface, then, nature looked every bit as cold and calculating as the scientists' functional sociopathy in their objective pursuit of the truth.

Alas, the vaunted modern rationalists were hindered in their progressive labours by their human brains, which instinctively use metaphors to understand the unfamiliar in terms of the familiar. And so the universal metaphor of the super-organism was replaced with that of the clockwork mechanism, and deistic speculations on the intentions of the intelligent designer were confined to whisperings within modern esoteric cults, like Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism. After all, if rational methods are so successful in discovering how natural processes work, then nature must indeed work, and a machine is just the sort of thing that’s intelligently designed; moreover, the more intelligible nature is, the more we wanton anthropomorphizers are tempted to share the misery of being human with the impersonal cosmos, projecting our idiosyncrasies onto its undead evolutions. Modern scientists thus cogitated to follow the clues left behind in the cosmic machine, hoping to deduce the plan of its maker, like Sherlock Holmes tracking a demented killer.  

The upshot is that modernists banished God from nature without killing him, and although they exorcised the spirits from the cosmos, they didn’t recognize nature as an undead monstrosity, as neither a living thing nor the designed product of one, but as a blasphemous simulation of creativity and rational order that mocks the values of secular humanism. There was a transition from theism to deism; God went underground so that we could have our turn in the limelight.

Postmodern Pantheism

Modernists bathed in that light until the postmodern period, which to my reckoning began in the early twentieth century with Einstein’s overturning of the Newtonian theory of space. In classical physics, space and time are absolutely unchanging, which leaves room for God’s omniscience and omnipotence: the dimensions of space and time are like windows through which God could see and sustain absolutely everything in nature. Einstein showed that space and time must instead be relative to the speed of light, meaning that these dimensions change depending on how fast the observer is travelling. So much for taking in the universe at a single, divine glance! And for Newton, an object’s motion is deterministic, meaning that its causes and effects are local: there’s always an intervening mechanism between cause and effect, as opposed to any “spooky action at a distance.” This was the point of the clockwork metaphor and the reason why God had to be banished from nature. But in quantum mechanics (Bell’s Theorem), reality is nonlocal: because of quantum entanglement, a particle’s properties in one galaxy can affect those of a particle in a distant galaxy with no mechanism whatsoever connecting the particles. Again, in the Newtonian picture, we can calculate motion with certainty, because nature is a machine that doesn’t depend on our observation of it, but in quantum mechanics we can calculate only the likelihood of fundamental events, because observation is bound up with those events. There is no preset reality, with objective attributes that obtain even when no one’s taking a measurement, or if there is an underlying reality, it seems to be an undivided whole as in Eastern mysticism.

Just as theism had to be replaced by deism, because modern scientists substituted faith in the Church for faith in the rational method, and that method depicts the world as a lifeless but self-determining machine, so now the sociopathic deity who builds the machine and then stalks it like a voyeur must be exchanged for the undead god. The upshot of postmodern physics is that the world is so alien to our ordinary conceptions that anthropocentric metaphysics has become plainly self-indulgent. The universe is not a machine, so it has no intelligent designer. Nevertheless, the world is hardly inert: everything a personal God could do to the universe, the universe does to itself; thus, the universe is god enough. But this postmodern pantheism is ironic and bittersweet, because although we become surrounded by the divine just by being in the midst of natural happenings, the god that’s actually omnipresent is a terrifyingly undead abomination that mindlessly creates, thus working towards no preplanned end, evolving for no reason at all and mocking the stories we tell about our supernatural essence of personhood. When the universe requires no mind to evolve galaxies, why does a human speck need a spirit to move from here to there?

To speak of the weirdness of quantum mechanics is to say that our intuitions are quaint. We evolved to succeed in a social setting that requires that we outwit our competitors, by divining their mental state and predicting their behaviour on that basis. We try to get the most mileage we can out of that mental trick, since our life-preserving traits consist only of mental tricks and our opposable thumbs. Thus, we turn our predictive powers not just on each other but onto the rest of the world, positing mechanisms and hidden dimensions in addition to a menagerie of gods and paranormal creatures. Postmodern physics seems, though, to portend the end of all of that.

According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, which I take to be the dominant one among physicists, there is no deep reality of the constituents of matter beyond the one that pops into place when measured. This metaphysically idealistic interpretation of quantum mechanics follows naturally from modern positivism. When you foreswear speculation and focus on what your senses “directly” show you, you’re bound to deny the existence of anything nonmental, since you can no longer justify talk of an independent cause of your sensations. This was the thrust of the early 18th C. philosopher George Berkeley’s objection to empiricism. The positivist is interested in exact knowledge, because that’s what’s needed to increase our technological power (over nothing, once matter loses its independence). Thus, the Copenhagen Interpretation is philosophically anti-philosophical, privileging operational knowledge, which defines the elements of matter in terms of the procedure needed to measure them, and whatever can be done with that knowledge, while deprecating speculation and its potential benefits. Of course, the positivist’s scientific values can’t themselves be scientifically justified.

Still, however expected a minimalistic, mind-centered metaphysics might be on the basis of empiricist epistemology, the fact is that even those who might want to speculate on the causes of quantum weirdness are unable to do so in the ordinary way, by using metaphors to compare the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus, even were there a deep, mind-independent reality, we wouldn’t be well-positioned to understand what it might be, because its quantum clues would be so different from our everyday world that our metaphors would be laughable. This is why physicists say you need to understand the mathematics to really grasp the quantum world; our natural languages are too intuitive. (And to be upfront, I do not understand that math.)

In any case, the macroscopic world that emerges from quantum leaps is neither a living thing nor the product of one; instead, that world is sufficiently lifelike that even its undead phenomena can provoke the vanity of hapless creatures such as us, so that we in the West have had to pass through millennia of theistic and deistic misunderstandings before we’ve finally reached the point at which we can prove not just nature’s undead divinity but our embarrassing ineptness at appreciating where we stand. Quantum mechanics proves, among other things, that we’re alienated by the limits of what we’ve evolved to do best: biologically speaking, we malfunction when we pretend that we’re more than animals, that we can apply our evolved skills to the unnatural task of fathoming quantum reality, and that we’ll necessarily continue to succeed biologically as a consequence. Far from flourishing thanks to modern science, we may in the longer run fulfill the curse of reason and lose our sanity after staring too long at the quantum abyss. We may be too curious for our good.

A Myth for Our Time

One way to endure the postmodern clash between nature’s alien reality and our vaunted mastery of the Earth is to face the worst-case scenario, to imagine the most dishonourable situation and then to test our ability to pick up the pieces of our self-respect and creatively reconcile ourselves with the imagined possibility. This is in fact the Nietzschean attitude towards myths. When Nietzsche said that time might be cyclical and that every moment might be replayed infinitely many times, he wasn’t offering a rationally justified theory that was meant to compel belief. Instead, he was trying to test your mettle, to ensure you’re not deluding yourself by attending only to self-serving ideas.

I think Philipp Mainlander’s idea of the world’s creation as God’s literal suicide is a most suitable candidate for such a myth. Mainlander’s vision of God is psychologically plausible, merely following through on the theistic metaphor, whereas mainstream monotheistic portrayals of God are stilted, incoherent, or incomplete as works of fiction. Everything we know about the personal concentration of power implies that God would not be benevolent or fatherly, but would become corrupted and insane as a result of his isolation. By itself, this strength of Mainlander’s myth warrants that the myth should be taken seriously--again, not as a scientific theory, nor even as a rational proposal for how the world might be, but as a work of stimulating fiction. At their best, fiction and art generally expand our awareness, enrich our mental associations, and fortify us in rough times. Postmodernity doesn’t bode well for advanced civilizations. I suggest that some philosophical work is needed to give us a fighting chance to emerge from this period intact. We must put aside childish things since they should comfort us no more, and make friends with the monster that lurks under the bed. We must bid farewell to our toy gods and if we still feel the urge to worship, we should pray to the god that strides naked all around us, that creates and destroys all things, that is no mere mental projection or respecter of our pitiful conceits. Nature is god. That god isn’t alive, so our prayers will go unheard, but nature is undead and so we should match that uncanny fact with an outrage of our own: we should worship not by groveling before a magnified image of the most corrupt among us, which is the oligarch, but by ranting songs of mockery in the void, proclaiming that we know where we stand in the grand scheme and are unafraid.

But that’s just a poetic gloss on Darwinian science. Nature’s undead divinity is real. You can strip away my figures of speech and the horrifying facts will remain. But as for the needed work of fiction, we should appreciate that Mainlander’s idea is physically as well as psychologically plausible. Take, for example, the Big Bang Theory, which explains nature’s origin from a gravitational singularity. This singularity is a point of infinite density and temperature which can’t be described by general relativity or quantum mechanics. The singularity is thus miraculous as opposed to natural. The Big Bang is thus consistent with saying that a transcendent being, subsisting beyond spacetime and which we’re forced to understand by employing flawed metaphors, somehow caused the singularity to expand and become what we think of as natural. For instance, the singularity could be that transcendent being itself or else it could stand for the miraculous technique used by that being. More relevantly, the singularity could be the point at which God transformed himself into nature, into his undying corpse, thus guaranteeing his eventual extinction through natural devolution. Of course, none of these statements is scientific or even particularly rational; rather, what I’m saying here is obviously speculative, the point being to tell a good story, to elevate the discourse to the level of salutary fiction/myth. And my point is about the story’s plausibility and consistency, not about providing evidence that the myth is empirically true.

Or take dark energy and the possibility of the Big Rip. According to modern cosmology, there’s a force called dark energy that counteracts gravity, pushing the universe apart. If that force accelerates over time, becoming what’s called phantom energy, it could cause the Big Rip, which is the absolute destruction of everything in the universe, from stars to atoms. Again, this is consistent with the metaphysical speculation that nature is God’s corpse, that God intended to annihilate himself by turning himself into something that could be completely destroyed. It turns out, then, that there’s an actual force that may be fulfilling that purpose. 

Finally, take the quantum mechanical principle of nonlocality. If quantum reality is a unified whole, as in Parmenides’ monism, this could reflect the unity of its transcendent source in God. According to the monotheistic myth, there’s a single, somehow personal being who is excruciatingly supreme in terms of his knowledge and power. That uniqueness of God motivates Creation, not because of God’s generosity or grace, but because divinity is intolerable: the reason God creates something other than himself even though God is already supposed to be perfect, is that perfect knowledge and power are perfectly corrupting and self-destructive. And God wouldn’t be creating something else so much as transforming himself into something that could be utterly destroyed, which is to say a material plane made up of patterns that can dissipate and parts that can be separated until there’s nothing left. God’s death would proceed by transmuting his infinite being into every possible natural combination of elements, running through and extinguishing each of the configurations until there’s nothing left. In the multiverse interpretation of quantum mechanics, every quantum possibility is actualized in some universe, although presumably not every universe is driven by phantom energy leading to a Big Rip. Perhaps, then, subatomic matter is unified because everything in nature, in the undying corpse that evolves new ways to destroy itself and so completes God’s tragic demise, derives from that single transcendent being whose uniqueness caused the Big Bang. Still, natural complexification and evolution are mindless, serving no purpose, because even though they may work towards the Big Rip, thus in fact fulfilling an insane God's intention, that God would be dead and so the meaning of his corpse would have died with him. For example, living things within the undead god would be free to modify nature to suit our own purposes, perhaps even reversing the process of decay or at any rate interpreting nature according to our ideals. 

Now, theology can always be shown to be trivially consistent with science, because theological statements are unfalsifiable and can be arbitrarily altered to suit the facts; they’re not meant to be scientific and they’re limited mainly by the imagination. But there are also ethical and aesthetic standards of myth-making. Myths can be more or less emotionally powerful, depending on whether the story they tell resonates with a certain audience. And my point is that I’d like to hear a good story, one that makes sense of the postmodern world and that tells us what we ought to do now. From medieval Europe to the postmodern global civilization, science, the cutting edge of accursed reason, has ironically pushed only the false God further and further out of existence while also putting the spotlight on the real divinity. From childish Christian theism, which has been out of fashion for several hundred years, to modern deism which turns God the loving father into God the coy voyeur, science hasn’t been a force for pure atheism. No, science has cast out only pretenders to the throne, disposing of our vain and incoherent anthropomorphisms. There is no personal divinity anywhere in the natural universe. No personal God acts within nature, nor is nature an artifact produced by such a being. Instead, what science has steadily revealed is that nature is itself impersonally divine. Nature creates its infinite patterns by complexification and evolution; the undead god decays. Technoscientific progress takes us inexorably to a theophany of the true god: as we think more and more about what’s real and as we investigate how nature works, we learn to see the world for what it is. But reason is accursed, because what we learn is that nature’s mindless creativity is an abomination to our dualistic and anthropocentric mindset.

So much for science’s contribution; science has shown us the true, eerie and creepy god, the physical world that simulates life in its scramble to etch more and more novel patterns into itself. How can art complement science in that respect? By telling a good story, I submit, by deriving inspiration from science, to shape culture with a viable, unembarassing postmodern myth. I believe Mainlander’s melancholy speculation makes for just such an edifying tale. We deserve no New Age happy-talk, nor need we settle for stale theistic propaganda for oligarchy, nor should we pretend that secular humanistic philistinism is emotionally fulfilling or uplifting. We need a master metaphor that alerts us to what’s really going on and that instructs us on how to respond. We should be like the God who’s a mainstay of our imagination, by effecting our drawn-out suicide, living more or less ascetically, renouncing the delusions and corruptions that would fell even the greatest being, and by facing our existential predicament with grim humour. 

15 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to ask this for a while: any brief comment or lengthy opinion on Deleuze?

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    1. I haven't read much Deleuze. Generally, I've stayed away from continental, postmodern philosophy because I don't like the pretentiousness of an overly literary style. I know my blog has a literary style too, but I try not to take refuge in all-out obscurity. (My background is analytic philosophy.)

      From what I understand, though, there are some similarities between Deleuze and what I've been calling existential cosmicism. He has a process metaphysics, as in Whitehead, and a Nietzschean view of knowledge as being subject to aesthetic standards. I don't go in much for Marx, on the social end of things, although we'll agree on some criticisms of capitalism and consumerism. I think the biological treatment of oligarchy is socially fundamental.

      My next blog entry will be on the death of art, addressing Camille Paglia's recent comments, and later I'll elaborate on my use of Mainlander (the speculative role of "difference," that is, complexification, evolution, and the quantum mechanical multiverse, in exhausting divine infinity so as to systematically obliterate God). This touches on Deleuzian themes, but I don't know whether Deleuze sees the existential implications of this sort of metaphysics.

      My uninformed criticism of Deleuze would be that his philosophy provides an excuse for the worst, most obscure postmodern philosophy, because he compares philosophical arguments to art works, creativity as opposed to rationality being the chief epistemic value. I appeal to Nietzsche in regarding key *life choices* and myths/fictions as the creation of artworks, but I don't eliminate rational standards when it comes to evaluating arguments. On the contrary, I speak of reason as a curse because it leads us to the Niezschean and cosmicist insights which postmodern existentialism should overcome.

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    2. This isn't to say that I think Deleuze is an obscurantist. Like I said, I haven't read enough of him to tell.

      It strikes me that there may be a similarity also between what he says about the "territorialization" of material flows, and the Iron Law of Oligarchy.

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    3. Ben, thank you for your comments. I ask because I too notice conceptual similarities and sometimes I wonder if I should keep pursuing his work. I'm merely a Hermetically inclined mystical layman tackling this beast. I keep at it like a moth and a porchlight for two reasons: 1) the more I read A Thousand Plateaus the more it comes into focus as something like a 20th century Hermetic manifesto/treatise and 2) unlike all the other heavy-hitting mystical metaphysicians of the past, Deleuze has witnessed the fractal age of ever-proliferating objects (Laozi had a cakewalk with ten thousand things) and he drew on modern science and math for an unprecedented variety of metaphors for explanation (for which he has been criticized). One thing I see in his work that I'm trying to understand is an ever-affirming, lack-free conceptualization of desire and imagination. Out of it I hope to find something beyond tried-and-true asceticism, although he has been interpreted that way. Not because "I" want to per say, but because I don't think ascetic detachment and disengagement is viable for saving psychopathic/narcissistic society from itself. Maybe it can help me to stay afloat or even surf this tidal wave of creativity that Nature's unleashing.

      Regarding obscurantism, from what I have garnered much of his pre-Guatarri work is recognized as "real philosophy". In my opinion when he teamed with Guatarri they started doing "sorcery" and they weren't at all concerned with addressing philosophers. Anti-Oedipus was mainly a polemical version of Deleuze's previous work written for the popular Freudian-Marxist context of post-May 1968 Paris. ATP has numerous hints and outright declarations of sorcery. The forward suggests reading it like listening to a record, skipping "what's cold" and repeating favorite cuts. "The authors' hope, however, is that elements of it will stay with a certain number of its readers and will weave into the melody of their everyday lives." As for what audience could grasp the unity of the bizarrely diverse context of ATP, I wonder how serious this line in "The Geology of Morals" is: "His dream was not so much to give a lecture to humans as to provide a program for pure computers."

      I had to share my thoughts here with anyone who may be drawn to his work. Thanks again.

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  2. "Quantum mechanics proves, among other things, that we’re alienated by the limits of what we’ve evolved to do best: biologically speaking, we malfunction when we pretend that we’re more than animals, that we can apply our evolved skills to the unnatural task of fathoming quantum reality, and that we’ll necessarily continue to succeed biologically as a consequence."


    I am a bit confused by this statement. Do you mean to say that you believe we will never truly understand quantum reality because of our biologically-defined mental limits? I hope I don't sound like I'm deluding myself when I say this, because I certainly don't harbor any grandiose sentiments about the "godliness" of human creativity or mental power or what have you, but as someone who is about to finish a bachelor's degree in physics, I do think that the discoveries made in the area of quantum mechanics are deep, profound, and not to be taken lightly. Also, in reference to the Copenhagen interpretation, it is my understanding that prior to taking a measurement, a given quantum system does in fact exist in a "distribution" of states simultaneously, and it is only the act of taking the measurement that "forces" that system to "choose" one state to inhabit. This is all to say that it seems to me that our inability to understand quantum mechanics on the same level as classical mechanics (which is, in principle, completely deterministic) does not stem from a peculiar deficiency in our brains (though many deficiencies do in fact exist), but rather is a consequence of the fact that the outcome prior to measurement is unknowable because it literally does not yet exist (at least in a way that is intuitively understandable for us).

    The classic example is radioactive decay. It is a truly random process. No amount of information about the nucleus can tell you when that nucleus will decay. Empirical observations will easily yield the probability that a nucleus of that type will decay, and the timeframe over which it is likely to occur, but there is no way to tell when or even if any particular isolated nucleus will decay.

    Sorry if this seems irrelevant, I just feel compelled to defend the progress made in this area (not that I take you to be anti-science at all, or anything like that).

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    1. Thanks very much for your comment, Ryan. Your comment isn't at all irrelevant; on the contrary, when it comes to physics I'm only an interested layman, so you'll know much more than I do about QM. However, I think we've got a couple misunderstandings here.

      We've got to distinguish between understanding QM in terms of being able to use mathematical tools to predict with great precision certain aspects of what happens at the quantum level, and the more philosophical issue of understanding QM in terms of interpreting the metaphysics of quantum events. My point is about the latter, not the former, whereas I assume that in physics classes the philosophical issue of interpreting quantum theory takes a back seat.

      Now, as to whether particles exist before they're measured, my understanding is that Heisenberg and Bohr differed on this point. Heisenberg adapted Aristotle's distinction between potential and actuality. Before they're measured, particles "exist" in only a semireal way, as potentia. But Bohr was pretty firm in denying that there's any deep quantum reality. I take that denial to follow from severe empiricism.

      The point I was trying to make, though, isn't so much that we'll never be able to understand the metaphysics of quantum events, but that doing so--and thus finally grasping the ultimate nature of reality and our place in it--may not be what's best for us. This is the point of Lovecraft's cosmicism, at any rate. I know cosmicism (or mysterianism) may seem to come out of left field when talking about QM, but it seems to me that the metaphysical strangeness of quantum events nicely confirms those philosophical warnings about the curse of reason and how curiosity killed the cat.

      Thanks for reading.

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    2. I see. That makes sense, and I do doubt that we will ever discover the "why" of quantum mechanics (we haven't even figured out what an electric field really is, when you get right down to it).

      Great blog.

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  3. So let me ask you a question. I admit upfront I have not read all of your blog posts yet, so you may have answered this somewhere, but assuming I am a cosmicist (which I take to mean that I recognize our fragile, tragic condition in the universe as such), should I value scientific knowledge for its own sake, for practical reasons, or both, or neither? Or does cosmicism even have anything to say about values? I do know that I personally value scientific pursuits, and feel like this is a key component of my identity, although I couldn't exactly explain why I feel this way. I guess I'm asking, does existential cosmicism allow us to choose our own values, or do certain values naturally flow from the philosophy, or what?

    I admit I have only rudimentary knowledge of philosophy, so I apologize if my questions are tedious.

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    1. Thanks, Ryan. I haven't yet addressed your questions exactly, but some of my blog entries that are relevant are "Scientism: Modern Pagan Religion," "The Curse of Reason," "Existential Cosmicism and Technology," and "Morality and the Aesthetic Conception of Life."

      Cosmicism doesn't prescribe anything, but existentialism certainly does. I'll be writing soon directly on existentialism as opposed to cosmicism. Nietzsche, for example, values creativity in overcoming our depressing knowledge and our tendency to retreat to comforting delusions. Another existential value is authenticity, or personal integrity, which means courage in facing the truth, avoidance of hypocrisy and easy, politically correct, feel-good answers.

      Given what's called the naturalistic fallacy, science can't legitimately prescribe values. However, there's a modern ideology or philosophy that science-centered people tend to adopt, which is called secular humanism and which I've called scientism. According to this science-centered philosophy, technoscience is of ultimate value because it's instrumental to social progress. According to Durkheim's theory of religion, secular humanism counts as a religion, because it's based on identifying something as sacred, or as what Paul Tillich calls ultimately valuable. Existentialists tend to reject science-centered religion.

      Anyway, feeling that science is stunningly useful, a breath of fresh air, or admirable because of its elevation of us isn't necessarily a religious act or objectionable. Cosmicists should value science for showing us the truth of nature, but whether this is a positive or a negative value is another question. I speak of reason in general as a curse, because although it gives us the opportunity to grow up in an existential sense, that opportunity is simultaneously a threat to our peace of mind or sanity. Just look at how Christian and Muslim fundamentalists flee not just from the social consequences of modernism but from the philosophical implications of scientific theories.

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    2. Thank you for your reply. It's somewhat amazing to me how similar or maybe parallel would be a better word) your philosophy is to Hinduism, in its monism and its focus on seeing past a world of illusions.

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    3. Ryan, if you haven't read it, Ben's article "From Theism to Cosmicism: Toy Gods and the Horror of the Supernatural" gives much useful background on the reasons for the similarities.

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  4. "Nature creates its infinite patterns by complexification and evolution; the undead god decays."

    Could you explain what you mean by this? Why would complexification and evolution lead to decay?

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    1. I explain what I mean by the metaphor of nature's undeadness, and thus of its decay, in my Oct 2012 article, "Darwinism and Nature's Undeadness." See also "The World's Creation as God's Self-Destruction."

      The metaphor is a way of making sense of entropy and the Big Rip. There are other cosmological predictions, of course, but those ones interest me the most. And the idea is that, given philosophical naturalism, there are no immaterial, supernatural spirits. We personify ourselves and each other when we explain intuitively the intelligent, creative, and purposeful aspects of our behaviour. And although, given atheism, we shouldn't explain, say, biological design as having an intelligent cause, we should appreciate that the cosmos is far more creative than us, since the cosmos creates itself through complexification and evolution. Thus, nature is neither living (intelligent and personal) nor dead (inert, uninspiring); instead, I submit, nature is best intuited as being undead, and so we arrive at a sort of naturalistic theology of pantheism.

      What does an undead thing do? Does it improve itself by its self-creative contortions? No, ultimately it falls apart and we mistake the awesome method of nature's eventual self-destruction for one of pure creation. There can be apparent design even in a drawn-out act of self-destruction, and complexification and evolution are the mereological and temporal developments of that creative destruction. In Mainlander's theology, the universe is God's undying body left behind after God's suicide. God turned himself into something that could be destroyed, and time and mereology are some of the dimensions God works in to achieve that end. The zombie metaphor seems apt to this disturbing theology, no?

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  5. I’m not sure whether what follows affects your main point, which seems to be that we need an edifying myth of the world as presented by modern science, but it’s worth pointing out a couple of things: First, the quantum multiverse and the Copenhagen Intepretation are fundamentally at odds. If one is right, the other is wrong. If the multiverse (Many Worlds) idea is correct, then the universe is deterministic, local and mind-independent – all the things that Einstein sought in a good theory. This would mean that quantum non-locality (“spooky action at a distance”), indeterminism and the metaphysical idealism seemingly implied by Copenhagen are actually not there at all. Also, current inflationary theory holds that the Big Bang is only a “start” to our own “bubble universe,” and that there are countless other universes inflating into existence, and always have been: space and time, matter and energy have always existed and always will.

    An immediate problem with QM interpretations is that, while Copenhagen and Many Worlds are fundamentally at odds, there is no way to tell which is right, because they make the exact same predictions. There are those who contend (some disagree) that there can never be a way even in principle to tell which ontology is correct. If so, science, at least at this level, becomes fully instrumental, and we must abandon any conceit to determining how things “actually are.”

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    1. Fair enough. The point about myths, then, would be that whichever scientific model we accept, we should have a bigger worldview that includes myths that cohere with the science. The undead god myth can be changed to suit different interpretations of quantum mechanics. After all, the myth is unfalsifiable because it's unscientific; all it takes is some imagination to rework the fiction to make it relevant to how we think the real world works. But the trick is to make the myth aesthetically compelling as well as relevant.

      The problems with the premodern myths of Christianity, Islam, etc, are that they're irrelevant and in some cases aesthetically weak for our time, as I argue here:

      http://rantswithintheundeadgod.blogspot.com/2012/06/christian-crudities-aesthetic.html

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