From The New Atlantis, Fall 2012:
Biological sciences, much like physical sciences, have been stripped of philosophical concerns, of questions regarding the soul or the meaning of life, which have been pushed off to the separate disciplines of philosophy and theology. Much of modern biology seeks to emulate physics by reducing the human organism to a complex machine: thinking becomes merely chemical potentials and electric bursts, interest and motivation become mere drives to perpetuate the genome, and love becomes little more than an illusion. Such accounts can become problematic if we consider them the only ways to understand human nature — and not least because our answers to these non-scientific questions are at the foundation of how we view the world, and so also of how we interpret scientific findings.
Every model that social scientists use, whether it is derived from physics, biology, or ecology, embodies certain philosophical assumptions about human nature and about the optimal functioning of a society. Viewing social relations as movements of a clock implies a set of beliefs quite unlike those of perceiving the same relations as functions of a cell. Since the work of social scientists is so closely tied to these philosophical concerns on which we tend to disagree, we usually see a number of models compete for acceptance at the same time. And because these metaphysical assumptions are usually unspoken, they set the stage for the competition between models to take the place of what was once an explicit competition between differing philosophical accounts of the world — only now while largely denying that any philosophical debate is taking place.
. . . . Regardless of whether we view society as akin to a physical machine, or a biosphere, or an organism, it remains crucial that we recognize the limitations of each model. But what we learn from [Thomas] Kuhn is that any science that separates itself from its philosophical bases renders itself incapable of addressing such questions even within its own limited scope.
. . . . The lasting value of Kuhn’s thesis in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is that it reminds us that any science, however apparently purified of the taint of philosophical speculation, is nevertheless embedded in a philosophical framework — and that the great success of physics and biology is due not to their actual independence from philosophy but rather to physicists’ and biologists’ dismissal of it. Those who are inclined to take this dismissal as meaning that philosophy is dead altogether, or has been replaced by science, will do well to recognize the force by which Kuhn’s thesis opposes this stance: History has repeatedly demonstrated that periods of progress in normal science — when philosophy seems to be moot — may be long and steady, but they lead to a time when non-scientific, philosophical questions again become paramount.
Beware the coming fusion of humans — you, me, all of us — with our smartphones and their array of apps for everything from finding directions to buying groceries to making ethical decisions. And make no mistake: this fusion is indeed coming. Or rather, it’s already here in nascent form. Just look around yourself and notice the people sitting and standing in any public place — stores, restaurants, movie theaters, sidewalks, streets, roads — and consulting their handheld digi-daemons about where to go and how to get there, what to do and when and how to do it, whom to call and what to say. In literally every aspect of life, we increasingly get by with more than just a little help from our handheld friends. Read the rest of this entry
Is it just me, or is there a large-scale, culture-wide meta-pattern taking shape when it comes to the status of philosophical ideas of the “Big Question” variety? Are questions about the nature of personal and cosmic reality, and even of ontology itself, going mainstream and joining the more standard issues of politics and economics as matters of widespread, above-board focus and discussion? And are these somehow linked to a growing fascination — or obsession — with the morbid and macabre? And is this all leading to a simultaneously wonderful and disturbing sense of universal disorientation? Consider the following:
In recent years the John Templeton Foundation has made news multiple times with its high-profile funding of research into religious and philosophical questions and issues. Most prominently, they awarded a $4.4 million grant to Florida State University philosopher Alfred Mele to study the question of whether humans have free will and a $5 million grant to University of California-Riverside philosopher John Martin Fischer to conduct “research on aspects of immortality, including near-death experiences and the impact of belief in an afterlife on human behavior.” Obviously, these things run directly counter to the mainstream intellectual and scientific culture/climate where such issues and even the questions behind them have come to be viewed as suspect, worthless, and/or meaningless.
Now The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the ongoing efforts of the Templeton Foundation are starting to shift the intellectual playing field itself:
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Let us ask the Apostle Paul, that vessel of election, in what activity he saw the armies of the Cherubim engaged when he was rapt into the third heaven. He will answer, according to the interpretation of Dionysius, that he saw them first being purified, then illuminated, and finally made perfect.
We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic — thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice — may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits.
Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.
– Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man, trans. A. Robert Caponigri
Published in 1486, Giovanni Pico Della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man has been seen as a “manifesto of the Renaissance,” a flower of the humanistic spirit. And yet today’s humanists would be put off by its language, which is filtered through mysticism and Biblical rhetoric and symbols. Ironically, the Catholic authorities of its time similarly disliked it, but for opposite reasons, finding the piece to be not only heretical for its deviation from Catholic Christian orthodoxy but also “inflamatory,” with the potential to encourage and foster further heresies.
We find a similar discordance with our contemporary concept of the humanistic endeavor in the work of the psychologist William James. Presenting a counterpoint to the mechanistic theories of the 19th century, a large part of the work he did with the Society for Psychical Research was focused on exploring such issues as survival after bodily death and other phenomena that, in the past, had been rooted in a purely religious context. It was James’s study of the world’s religions that led him to create a humanistic alternative based on the possibility that proper scientific analysis of extraordinary experiences would lead to a profound picture of reality that went far beyond the things to which mechanistic theories were willing to grant credence. Yet today’s humanism vilifies James’s investigation of such phenomena.