Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Teleology of Beauty?

In his book Adventures in Ideas, Alfred North Whitehead wrote “The teleology of the Universe is directed toward the production of Beauty.” 

This is certainly an adventurous idea, but perhaps also a doubly questionable one.  That the Universe is directed by any teleology is questionable, and even for those who believe on faith the world is so directed, that it would be toward “beauty,” rather than say “goodness,” is questionable.  But here we will take up Whitehead's idea in the spirit of adventure.

Many people think the important thing about an idea is that it can be judged true or false. Some people, like myself, are not so interested in whether an idea is true or false, but care more about whether an idea is interesting or not. For us, questions that can unambiguously be answered true or false are rather boring.  As the opening strains of a great symphony entice a music lover, so a sentence like Whitehead’s entices the lover of adventurous ideas.  So in the spirit of that adventure, I’ll wander around in it for a bit. 

The experience of Beauty requires a being with direction, understanding and awareness.  And it requires an object that can attract that being, engage its understanding, fill its awareness.  Since without such a being the experience of beauty would not exist, to say that the Universe is directed to the production of beauty is to say that the Universe is directed to the production of creatures like ourselves, capable of experiencing beauty. 

From a naturalistic (which is to say an evolutionary) perspective, the creation of creatures like humans requires at least three ingredients: a great quantity of matter/energy, a very long time, and rather special parameters or rules.  According to the standard model of particle physics, there are about 21 fundamental parameters to the Universe.  These parameters include the masses of the various fundamental particles, and the relative strengths of the four fundamental forces.  Metaphorically, we might think of these fundamental parameters as the ingredients of a recipe that when cooked long enough, turns into a tasty stew. We are each of us a bit of that tasty stew.

The parameters, with their unique and constant values and intricate relationships, allowed beings capable of experiencing beauty to emerge.  Whether this is the result of some strange cosmic purpose, as Whitehead suggests, or the result of an equally strange cosmic accident, is beyond our knowing.  But that the Universe has produced such beings is simply a fact; a fact that is ours to enjoy.

Naturalism, and the scientific method that is integral to it, has tended toward the kind of positivism that insists on ideas that can be judged true and false.  In scientific and technical communication, the burden is largely on the communicator to express ideas clearly so that a minimum of interpretation is required of the reader.  This is sound methodology for those whose jobs are in scientific and technological fields.

Spirituality, on the other hand, tends to use myth and metaphor.  Its missives are often quite intentionally ambiguous, like poetry (much of the best spiritual writing is in the form of poetry).  The purpose of this is not obfuscation, as some may think, but because the realization of a spirituality requires effort and work. This kind of effort begins with the work required to penetrate the sayings of a teacher, or the foundational writings of tradition.  The Tao Te Ching is a particularly good example.  Its text is dense and capable of being understood on many levels.  One can come back to it over a life time with new and deeper understandings.

Both naturalism and spirituality produce interesting, adventurous ideas, but in the presentation of these ideas, they use different language games (to use a phrase from Wittgenstein).   Spiritual Naturalism attempts to integrate naturalism and spirituality.  Such an integration cannot come about through the reduction of one or the other of these language games, but has to be comfortable with both.  It needs to recognize when a clear, denotative language best serves the purpose and where a connotative or mythic language serves best. This is by no means an easy challenge.  For just as the modern world tends to be politically polarized, there is also a tendency for a polarization between those who are most comfortable with a clear denotative language and those who are comfortable with a connotative language and its ambiguities.

The integration of naturalism and spirituality is itself an adventure in ideas; ideas that hopefully direct us toward both a better understanding of the World and a deeper sense of belonging to its very Being (the integration of knowing and being). To return again to Whitehead's idea, if the Universe is directed toward the production of beauty, then we fulfill the purpose of the Universe by exploring and experiencing its beauty and wonder.  The Universe has given us the talent for such exploration and experience.  This fact, again, is ours to enjoy.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Idea of God – Part Four

Having pointed out that a more sophisticated idea of God may actually be less useful to people than a simple idea, here I will explore what I believe constitutes a more sophisticated idea.  The notion of more or less sophisticated, as used here, is analogous to the idea of better and worse interpretations of a work of art.  There is no best interpretation of a work of art, but a comprehensive and completely coherent interpretation can claim to be better than one that is not comprehensive or coherent.  Being comprehensive, it cannot ignore any significant aspects of the work.  Being coherent, the interpretation must be logically defensible and capable of holding up to criticism.  In the same way, a sophisticated idea of God must be inclusive and defensible. 

In the first part of this series, I stated that there are a great variety of ideas of God found throughout the world.  I will posit as an initial criterion of a sophisticated idea of God that it must be formed with awareness, and at least a degree of openness, to other concepts.  From this it would seem that a sophisticated idea of God is in conflict with the idea of faith; should not the faithful hang on to their beliefs over and against any evidence presented against their faith?  Genuine faith, I would maintain, allows a complete openness to other ideas.  A sophisticated faith allows itself to change; it has faith that its core experience of the divine is a truth that will not be diminished by any evidence.  

If a sophisticated idea of God requires an awareness of other people’s ways of thinking about God, in our own age it also means an awareness of the voices that deny God.  In particular it needs to address the challenge presented by modern scientific discovery.  A great deal has been written about his, and I will not try to rehash it.  The bottom line, though, is that any attempt to define God as a being that exists in space and time and conflicts with the natural causality of space and time will conflict with science; and when a religious idea conflicts with science, science will win every time.   A sophisticated notion of God has to be formed within this dialogue with the scientific understanding of the world.

I was brought up Catholic, and when I was young my family prayed the rosary together each evening.  I had no interest in this activity, and my mind wondered.  One evening I got to thinking about how prayer reached God.  God had been presented to me as a being “up there.”  I wondered if prayer was something like a radio transmitter that beamed up to God.  As I was thinking about this, I heard a voice in my head say, “I am right here where you pray.”   What this voice was saying is that God is not out there, but inside.   As suggested earlier, this is how God enters and affects the causality of the world – through inspiring human action.   With this view there is no conflict between the scientific view and the religious view.  God does not violate causality.

The idea of God is beyond all category, thus beyond definition.  Beyond this there is not much to be said about what God is.  But I think we can list a few things that would not be a part of a sophisticated idea of God:  God is not small or petty – the galaxy clusters in the photographs of the Hubble Space Telescope tell us something of the scope of God.  God as concept is too big for the limitations of any language; all words are human words, all books are human works.  God is beyond picking and choosing; there are no chosen people.   Because God does not pick and choose, it is only natural that his world should operate lawfully; as a corollary, it is foolish to ask God to change the world.  It is we who will change the world, or change our self, and God is the inner light by which we might find the wisdom to make enlightened change.  Pray to experience the divine light and the divine love – that experience may prepare you to change the world; or teach you how to leave the world alone.