Paul P. Mealing

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Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Life, God, the universe and everything

Recently, I was involved in a forum on Stephen Law’s web site (see my blog roll) which critiqued Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. Stephen, in effect, set up a book club, whereby we went through all of Dawkins’ 10 chapters, one by one, over a period of about 12 weeks. My involvement was miniscule, and the nature of the beast meant that discussions went off on all sorts of tangents. Atheism reigned, as most of Stephen’s contributors, though not all, are staunch Dawkins’ supporters.

I should point out that I have used many of Dawkins’ arguments myself against religious fundamentalists, without knowing they were his. But I don’t share Dawkins’ apparent contempt for religion per se. In Australia, Dawkins tends to be seen as alarmist, but maybe it’s because the politics of religion, and the history of religion in politics, are different here. As Thomas Keneally (Booker prize-winning author of Schindler’s Ark) once said: Australians, generally, have a healthy disrespect for religion (or words to that effect).

I didn’t contribute much to Stephen’s forum at all, but somewhere in the midst of it I threw in a grenade by asking the existential question: ‘What’s the point?’

In addition to The God Delusion, I also read Paul Davies’ God and the New Physics, published in 1983, which covers much of the same material, some of it in greater depth if not greater overall length; but unlike Dawkins, Davies doesn’t have an axe to grind. It was after reading Davies’ book that I submitted the following comment.

‘The more I read about this and the more I contemplate it, the more I tend to conclude that the universe is not an accident. In other words, it’s purpose-built for life. This does not axiomatically lead to the existence of God, as both Paul Davies and Christian de Duve point out. The ‘God’ question is almost irrelevant; it’s the wrong question. The question should be: What’s the point?

Imagine the universe with no consciousness at all, and then ask yourself: what’s the point? There are only 2 answers to this question: there is no point; or the point is consciousness, because that’s the end result.’

Now, by asking the question in the paradoxical context of imagining there is no consciousness, it highlights the very enigma one is attempting to grasp. As someone pointed out, without consciousness, who asks the question?

The first response to this (on Stephen’s site) came from an ‘anonymous’ contributor, who seemed personally insulted, and, following a short diatribe, asked, ‘What’s wrong with no point?’ To which I responded, ‘Nothing wrong with no point. We agree to disagree.’ After all, I’d already said it is one of only two answers in my view. My antagonist allowed this through to the keeper (to use a hackneyed cricketing metaphor) and pursued it no further.

Recently, in another post, I speculated that we may never truly understand consciousness, because it is an emergent property, and we are now faced with the epistemological possibility that emergent properties may never be explained in terms of their underlying parts, at least, mathematically (see my Oct.08 post, Emergent phenomena).

But there is more to this: according to Dawkins, we are all just ‘gene-replicating organisms’; so consciousness is totally irrelevant – a byproduct of nature that allows us to ask totally irrelevant existential questions. I’ve said before that if we actually didn’t experience consciousness, science would tell us that it doesn’t exist, just like science tells us that free will doesn’t exist (see my Sep.07 post on Free Will). This suspicion was reinforced earlier this year, when I read an article by Nicholas Humphrey in SEED magazine, who concluded that consciousness is an illusion, and its sole (evolutionary) purpose is to ‘make life more worth living’, which could be translated into one word: ‘happiness’. So, syllogistically, one could conclude that happiness is an illusion too. As a pertinent aside, I wonder how Humphrey can distinguish his dreams from reality. (Refer Addendum below)

Paul Davies attempts to tackle this conundrum head-on in his book, The Goldilocks Enigma, and concludes, if I interpret him correctly, that the universe exists because we are in it - in a sort of causal loop. He’s elaborated on an idea originally formulated by his mentor, John Wheeler, more famously known for coining the term, ‘Black Hole’.

So in a way, Dawkins and Davies represent 2 polar views on this, and I tend to side closer to Davies. Davies, who is an astro-biologist, as well as a physicist and philosopher, says that he’s ‘agnostic’ about life existing elsewhere in the universe, but, while he may be scientifically agnostic, he’s said elsewhere that, philosophically, he favours it. Davies is far from a crank, I might add – even Dawkins treats him with respect.

In another post, earlier this year (Theism as a humanism, Aug.08), I postulated the completely ad-hoc idea that God is the end result of the universe rather than its progenitor. Now, I’ve said on many occasions, that the only evidence we have of God is inside our minds, not ‘out there’, yet the experience of God, because that’s what God is (an experience) always feels like it’s external. There is actually neurological brain-imaging evidence to support this (New Scientist, 1 Sep.2007, pp 32-6) by Andrew Newberg at the University of Pennsylvania, showing that ‘Religious feelings do seem to be quite literally self-less…’ In the same context, I’ve also quoted Ludwig Feuerbach: ‘God is the outward projection of man’s inner nature.’ My conclusion is that there are as many different versions of God as people who claim to experience him, her or it. So God is, at least partly, a projection.

Where is all this leading? Fuerbach’s assertion, and all our cultural attributions, would suggest that God is the projection of our ideals. But, if one takes Feuerbach’s postulate to its logical and literal conclusion, then God could be the emergent property of all of our collective consciousness. In that case, the universe really would have a purpose.

Addendum (4 April 2010): I may have misrepresented Nicholas Humphrey - please read the addendum to my post Consciousness explained (3 April 2010)

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Is psychology a science?

This is another letter I wrote to New Scientist in response to an article by Dorothy Rowe, an Australian psychologist apparently, and author of What Should I Believe? No, I haven't read her book, but the article is erudite and intellectually provocative enough to suggest that she's worth reading.

I have to point out that I don't have a degree in psychology or science, or philosophy, for that matter, but I've studied all three at tertiary level, and I've read widely in all fields. The reason I was prompted to write this is that I've always held an opinion on it ever since I did study psychology at Uni and was struck by the obsession of the faculty to be taken seriously as a science. Having also studied science, and physics in particular, I was always aware that there were differences. This is not to denigrate psychology, at all, but to point out that whilst the study of psychology becomes more technical I believe there are fundamental aspects of psychology that make it uniquely different to the study of other 'natural phenomena', which is how I define science.

Below is the letter I wrote. By the way, I haven't really addressed Dorothy Rowe's article, which was titled, Ask better questions, just responded to her opening question.

'Is psychology a science?' is the opening question in Dorothy Rowe's article in New Scientist (1 November 2008, p.18). Somehow, psychology still seems to sit somewhere between science and philosophy, involving both, but not belonging to either. Human behaviour will never be distilled into a set of laws, even remotely like physics, or even biology. In other words, the ability to predict behaviour outcomes, will be statistical at best. In psychology, an aberrational datum will be seen as an outlier, whereas, in physics, it's either an error or the genesis of a new theory. Also, different theories attempting to provide insight into the same behaviour, generally don't provide any synergy. Example: attachment theory and Lee's 6 types of love both deal with relationships, but have no common ground. This is not an atypical example.

I was taught that psychology was a dialectical process - opposing theories are combined into a new thesis; like the nature and nurture debate (genes versus environment) having to be both taken into account. Science is also a dialectic process, though, between theory and experiment, rather than between opposing theories.

I found that psychology is a very good tool for tackling philosophical problems, like the social dynamics that lead to acts of evil (see my Oct.07 post on Evil). So, at the end of the day, they deal with different issues, different problems. Science may tell us where we came from, but it can't tell us why we kill each other. So I still see them as separate, but having some methodologies in common.