Progress versus Process December 2, 2012Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society.
Tags: politics, process, progress, religion, skepticism, teleology, transhumanism
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Politically, I tend to align myself with progressive thought. I generally like the idea of progress; moving towards an ideological target. But when I think more closely about the idea of progress as a concept, I think it lacks something important, and has some potential inherent dangers, when compared to the idea of a process.
One of the dangers of political ideologies is that very distracting idea of a target or set of social and political goals. Because while those goals may be based upon clear thinking, good values, and hopefully even empirically sound philosophical bases, the fact is that circumstances change and we may not notice if we keep looking at the destination.
See, progress is teleological. Process is methodological.
Teleology implies intention, design, and is associated with religious theology in many ways. The presence of intent and purpose, when it come to theology especially, might seem safe because the designer is often believed to be perfect, or at least optimally knowledgeable and powerful. But progress in the real world involves imperfect people, and so when we think about progressing towards some ideal utopia, or merely a better set of values and policies, we are almost certain to err. And if we are attached to the destination too strongly, we may not even see those errors.
Instead, we should be focusing on the process by which we solve problems and understand the world. Goals are nice, and often necessary to accomplish anything, but by focusing on the goal rather than the road we walk upon, we will lose sight of many things.
Many forms of religion, and religious thinking, suffer from this very problem. The focus on Heaven (or Hell) for many people is a prime example of this. Built into the worldview of many forms of Christianity, for example, are things like purpose, intent, and ultimate destinations for us in God’s plan. And even within the Christian world people will criticize other believers for focusing too much on the goal, rather than what God wants us to do here. By being focused on getting to Heaven (or avoiding Hell), many people are not doing many of the things here and now that they could, or should, be doing in this life.
And, of course, this leads to the common atheist criticism of religion; people’s focus on the afterlife, rather than this real life (the only one we have), leads people to miss all that we really have. But this mistake is prevalent throughout all of human groups, including some atheists. It’s one of the many imperfections with how our brains evolved, and I think we can all benefit from an awareness about what methods we use, rather than an ideological goal.
That’s what skepticism and science are good for. Because skepticism and science are not goals; they are methods. Granted, it’s hard to avoid looking at the potential horizon in our pursuit of the truth, but we need to make sure that how we think about those goals in the here and now, so we don’t get caught up in the dream rather than the reality.
Focusing on our process, our method, will make sure that we are on the right road, because all-too-often people find that the road they are one don’t lead anywhere; that the location in the horizon was a mirage, and the road (which they were not looking at) just goes in circles, or merely stops one day, nowhere near their illusory destination.
And there are many images of potential futures with science as our road (I’m looking at you, transhumanists). But we cannot live in the hope that those futures will occur. We can be inspired by them, but we have to live where we are. I’ve known Christians who miss too much of life because they are awaiting Heaven, and I have known atheists who let life pass by because they desire their cybernetic bodies or their mind to be uploaded into a different kind of immortality.
In my opinion, we all would be better off by making sure that the thinking we are doing today is connected to real goals and real life, otherwise we may be letting precious time slip by in the name of illusory goals. I want my goals to be attached to a skeptical worldview, utilized to make this life better for us and our descendants.
All of my distant goals and ideals are subject to change and revision because I keep my attention to what is going on around me, and thus my goals sometimes change.
Science; the horse to theology’s cart of progress January 13, 2010Posted by Shaun McGonigal in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: process, progress, science, theology
Progress. The word implies a goal, teleology, or purpose. Some, such as Alfred North Whitehead, preferred to think about process. And while my views differ significantly from Whitehead, I agree that process might be the better term for the improvement, over time, of our understanding of the world around us. Purpose implies a purposer, which is what theology is all about. Science does not carry this assumption with it into the lab (nor does it discount its possibility).
There are a multiple processes we use in our lives, and they have led to increased and subtle understanding of ourselves and of the universe that surrounds us. But not all processes are equal, playing different parts in our lives.
Our thinking is complex, largely hidden from our conscious awareness, and often incoherent. It is often attracted to processes which have lesser pragmatic efficacy, but which nonetheless have psychological gravitation.
The scientific method is a late addition to our intellectual toolbox. It starts with observation, but it’s life-blood is experimentation. It seeks to eliminate bias–to lesser and greater degrees depending upon how an experiment is structured–and thus to attempt objectivity. I prefer the term ‘intersubjectivity,’ at the risk of encroaching on some possibly semantic hair-splitting.
Theology is the study of god(s). More generally, it is the study of the divine, the supernatural, etc. It is an attempt to apply logical and rational thinking to the propositions of revelational thinking which is largely primitive and based open pattern-recognition gone-awry. It, strictly, is not science.
Now, this is not to say that theology is completely separate from science. It is not not even a different epistemological realm of science, despite what Stephen Jay Gould thought (I am not a fan of NOMA). We live in the same universe, under the same laws, whether we are doing theology or science. And some theologians use science in addition to their logical approach to religious or spiritual insights.
The question is which one is pulling the other along or whether they take turns doing the work.
Well, that may depend on your point of view. If you are working with the Templeton Foundation, for example, you may see some give and take going both ways. Such people tend to see that science and religion influence one-another, and an attempt to not only bridge these processes but to find ways that they intersect is a good thing.
In a larger cultural sense this is true, but perhaps only to the limited extent that they both exist simultaneously and people carry both of them in the same minds and thus they communicate. There is certainly a sense where the ideas of religion influence how scientists think as well as the discoveries of science influencing theology (unless, of course, you are these guys). And as time marches on, the cultural influence will continue, most undoubtedly.
But there is a difference between science and religion in another sense; one that transcends mere cohabitation. While the language, stories, and flavor of religion has helped carve much of our culture, and thus those that live in it, our pragmatic understanding has been dominantly influenced by science rather than theology. There is a difference between the methodologies of science and religion which results in a dramatic personality difference between them. Neither one is misidentified as the other, except in very superficial ways.
Charlatans and shysters from various theological backgrounds have been trying to sell snake oil, utopias, and personal redemption of various kinds to people for ages. From new age self-help, evolving messages of redemption from Christian evangelicals, and religions created by science fiction writers, there are multiple ways that theology has tried to advertise itself as a product that will help you either in this world or the next. But it is rather interesting that with the advent of the scientific method theology has been hanging off the coattails of science, feeding off the droppings left behind in almost unnoticeably slow changes to their beliefs and attitudes.
With new age philosophies and religions loving every moment of quantum mechanics (all while getting it wrong), Christianity getting slowly more and more progressive, and with the invention of religions that even try to call themselves something that sounds scientific, it is clear that the primitive human mind is trying to adapt the “metaphysical need” (as Nietszsche called it) to the realities of scientific processes.
Just imagine what a progressive theologian of several centuries ago would say to Rick Warren now. Imagine what a pre-Christian pagan would say to Deepak Chopra. Imagine how Scientology would be greeted by L. Ron Hubbard ten years before he thought of the idea. The progress of theology has made much of it more modern, tolerant, and informed (even if it only sounds this way), but this was not because of their own efforts.
All good intelligent and open-minded people of today taking the progress of the times into their lives and incorporating them into their modern theologies is quantifiable improvement on society and their religion. The problem is that it is the wrong kind of improvement because it overlooks a more robust update to the theological software (theology 2.0 anyone?) of many religious traditions.
It has been said that Christianity (for example) has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into modernity by other cultural forces. And with it came a new theology that was able to incorporate what science has brought to us via the blood and sweat of those that the once-great Catholic Church once considered heretical. And now the Church accepts evolution, heliocentricism, and perhaps eventually female church leaders as other denominations of Christianity have.
But this is not progressive revelation, it is a reluctant acceptance of overwhelming facts, cultural pressure, and economic interest. These are means to adjust theology to survive in the real world, based upon facts and theories from another method which theology does not fully understand or accept. And even when it does understand this method, it does not employ it to the points of their theology because they believe that the two are different realms. This is not theology growing up, it is theology listening to its better educated, more worldly, and successful little brother named science.
And while there are certainly exceptions, theology of most faiths has neither grown up to understand nor to use the methodologies that science employs. Rather, it accepts the conclusions of those methodologies after they become overwhelmingly true–or at least overwhelmingly accepted among people that either are adherents or potential tithers.
Much of the world’s religious communities have learned to recognize the power of science, but has not quite recognized the methods that science uses as applicable to the theology they continue to adjust. Theology does not discuss things that science cannot deal with because theology makes claims about the world, even if indirectly. If the supernatural influences the real world, then the effects should be open to empirical study at very least.
The proclamations of theology are subject to the same scrutiny as stars, brains, or particles. And while facts about the physical world don’t directly lead to ideas about morality, meaning, or beauty, they certainly can tell us a lot about how these things are increasingly becoming part of science’s domain.
The hard problem of consciousness, the question of what really caused the universe to exist (if such a question is meaningful), and the nature of the quantum world are still beyond our reach scientifically, but theology provides no methodology for answering these questions which is better than science. Theology provides some answers, sure, but what reason do we have to accept them?
Science is tugging theologians along the path of history and theology is redefining itself based upon what is sees science doing. Theology dons the apparel of the strange places that science ventures, but in a sense this garb is little more than a souvenir which will make it look stylish and trendy. Those who follow in religion’s wake in these trends will think they are modern but they miss that they are only following fashion. Theology wears scientific-colored robes in order to maintain its own goal which is more about maintaining itself rather than pulling the cart of culture along.