11 July 2010

First Sunday after Independence Day

This year, as it happens, America's Independence Day fell on a Sunday, so the first Sunday thereafter comes with the full week's delay.

It is, as always, a good time to contemplate the grave danger in confusing religious piety with political/patriotic feelings. I'm not making a constitutional point -- let's not argue about what the phrase "establishment of religion" meant to Madison, Mason, and that old powdered-wig-wearing crowd. (If I die a martyr to the US, will I be greeted in paradise by a crowd of Virginians?)

My point, rather, is theological. I believe whole-heartedly that the universe isn't just a bunch of material/mechanical coming and going. Life is more than matter and mind is more than life and the whole of the cosmos is more than its parts -- that More is what we revere as God. Precisely because I believe this, I find it baffling and disheartening when people try to hijack spirituality for nationalism.

On this first Sunday after Independence Day, let us recall the first book of Samuel, chapter 8, with its stern warning against any earthly claims to sovereignty.


So Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who asked him for a king. And he said, “This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants. And you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, and the Lord will not hear you in that day.”


Henry said...


If you had said that you FEEL "whole-heartedly that the universe isn't just a bunch of material/mechanical coming and going. Life is more than matter and mind is more than life and the whole of the cosmos is more than its parts," then I'd have no argument with you, because one cannot argue about feelings.

But how can you BELIEVE such things without evidence (beyond your feelings, which surely do not constitute evidence)?

Christopher said...


I've run essentially the same blog entry four times now, with very slight variations -- one time each July of the existence of this blog. This is the first time it inspired you to respond.

That's an observation, not of course an answer. Here is an answer, one that I'm sure you will find unconvincing but I'll advance it anyway.

First, it seems to me that there is much in human nature that can not be described or even coherently discussed in terms of the mechanism of natural selection. What, for example, is the "selfish meme" value of a sense of humor? It is, I think, better understood on its own terms, as a distinctively mental fact, something that persists even if it sometimes impedes survival skills.

Havelock Ellis wrote, "Even the momentary expansion of the soul in laughter is, to however slight an extent, a religious exercise."

That we laugh, not when tickled (which presumably has some simple physiological cause) but when our "fancy" is tickled as the saying goes, we are showing the something "more," beyond the mechanical, of which mind consists.

More generally (this is a second point, though perhaps a generalization of that one) the mind/body connection continues to fill me with wonder, and to resist any explanation that could give aid to the reductionist/materialist.

Reductionism seems simply false, and seems, (this is a third point), caught in a logical circle. Suppose we can reduce mind to life, life to mechanism, mechanism to the motion of atoms and photons and such ... when we get down in the ladder of our reductions to what seems the bottom step and we're near a "theory of everything," we find that the explanations depend upon mind.

Schrodinger's cat isn't either dead or alive until some mind records it as such! So we're at the top of the ladder again, and our straightline derivation of the more from the less turns out to be a Mobius curve.

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...


Your first two points -- our inability to explain the existence of humor or the mind-body problem -- are not evidence that their explanations do not derive from the material world. The fact that we cannot explain something demonstrates nothing more than that we cannot explain it. The fact that the ancient Greeks could not explain thunder and lightning was not evidence that they were caused by Zeus' hurling thunderbolts.

I do not mean to imply that we will ever be able to understand humor or the mind-body problem. Ron Rosenbaum makes this mistake in a recent article in Slate when he writes, "'Why is there something rather than nothing?' [A]theists have faith that science will tell us eventually." http://www.slate.com/id/2258484/ That is false. This atheist at least recognizes that some knowledge may be beyond human comprehension, if only because our brains have evolved only to a certain point. Just as no dog will ever understand calculus, perhaps no human will ever be able to explain the mind-body problem. That is Colin McGinn's view, expressed in his book, The Mysterious Flame. By contrast, in The Rediscovery of the Mind, John Searle, with whom I agree, argues that we have solved the philosophical mind-body problem: the mind is a feature of the brain. We still have to solve the scientific mind-body problem: biologically, how does the brain produce the mind? We may or may not be able to solve that.

As for humor's not furthering survival, that is true of many things, such as the appendix, which we retained as we evolved because they are genetically linked to something with survival value. Stephen Jay Gould called such things "spandrels."

Finally, I am not sure that I understand your third point. If, by "explanations depend on the mind," you mean merely that explaining something is a mental process, then that is true of explanations of everything. If we explain the reason why water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, that does not mean that the cause of water's boiling is mental.

(The deleted comment was identical to this one, except that it contained a misspelling.)

July 12, 2010 9:03 AM

Christopher said...


I figured I would be unpersuasive.

I won't pursue the first two of my points, or your disagreement therewith, but I do want to try to explain my third.

When I said that we find that explanations, at the tiniest ofmicro levels, turnout to depend on the mind, I didn't simply mean to play on the word "explanations." It isn't just that we, as mindful creatures, seek to explain photons to each other. It is that photons and such seem to need minds in the world in order to be subject to explanation at all.

It all seems to depend upon functions that have to collapse when someone measures them.

What happens when you fite a photon at a shield with two slits in it?


Experiments such as that indicate that there is a "moreness" in the world. It is not just more than science now knows, but more than science conducted on reductionist principles will ever be able to know, because the results lead away from those principles of method themselves.

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.