Why the Global Brain needs a Therapist

Gaia Greek Mythology

The idea that the world itself could be considered an overarching form of mind can trace its roots deep into the religious longings of pantheism- the idea that the universe itself is God, or the closest thing we will ever find to our conception of God. In large part, I find pantheists to be a noble group. Any club that might count as its members a philosophical giant like Spinoza, a paradigm shattering genius such as Einstein, or a songbird like Whitman I would be honored to belong to myself. But alas, I have my doubts about pantheism- at least in particular its contemporary manifestation in the form of our telecommunications and computer networks being granted the status of an embryonic “global brain”. I wish it were so, but all the evidence seems to point in the other direction.

Key figures in this idea that our communications networks might constitute the neural passageways of a great collective brain predate the Internet by more than a generation. The great prophet of sentience emerging from our ever growing and intertwined communications networks was the Jesuit Priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He stated it this way:

We are faced with a harmonized collectivity of consciousness, the equivalent of a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the cosmic scale …

A more dystopian take on this was brought to us via the genius of Arthur C. Clarke in his 1961 short- “Dial F for Frankenstein” in which the telephone network “wakes up” and predictable chaos ensues. Only one year later the poetic and insightful Marshall Mcluhan gave us a view mixed with utopian and dystopian elements. We were weaving ourselves together into what Mcluhan called a “global village” filled both the intimacy and terror that was the hallmark of pre-literate societies. De Chardin  looked to evolution as the source of comparison to the emergence of his “Noosphere”, Mcluhan looked to the human brain. We had, he thought, “extended our central nervous system in a global embrace, abolishing space and time as far as our planet is concerned.”

 The phrase “global brain” itself would have to await until the 1980s and the New Age philosopher Peter Russell. Russell pushed the analogy between telecommunications networks and and the human brain even deeper managing to fuse together the two major views of the meaning of our telecommunications networks: Chardin’s evolutionary analogy with Mcluhan’s view of telecommunications networks as a nascent global brain. Russell saw the emergence of the human brain itself as an evolutionary leap towards even more interconnectivity- a property of the universe that had been growing at least since the appearance of life and reaching an apogee with the new computer networks tying individuals together.

In a period of rising communications across the nascent Internet, Russell held that the 10 billion neural connections of the human brain represented a phase change in the evolution of consciousness that would be replicated when the projected persons living on earth in the early 21st century would themselves be connected to one another via computer networks giving rise to a true “global brain”. With the age of the Internet just beginning, Russell would soon have company.

During the heady early 1990’s when the Internet was exploding into public consciousness the idea that a global brain was emerging from the ether graced the pages of tech mags such as Wired. There, journalists such as Jennifer Cobb Kreisberg could quote without any hint of suspicion Internet gurus like John Perry Barlow to the effect that:

We stand today at the beginning of Teilhard’s third phase of evolution, the moment at which the world is covered with the incandescent glow of consciousness. Teilhard characterized this as “evolution becoming conscious of itself.” The Net, that great collectivizer of minds, is the primary tool for our emergence into the third phase. “With cyberspace, we are, in effect, hard-wiring the collective consciousness,” says Barlow.

In 2002 Francis Heylighen of the Free University of Brussels could state his hopes for the emerging global brain this way:

The global brain will moreover help eliminate conflicts. It in principle provides a universal channel through which people from all countries, languages and cultures of this world can communicate. This will make it easier to reduce mutual ignorance and misunderstandings, or discuss and resolve differences of opinion. The greater ease with which good ideas can spread over the whole planet will make it easier to reach global consensus about issues that concern everybody. The free flow of information will make it more difficult for authoritarian regimes to plan suppression or war. The growing interdependence will stimulate collaboration, while making war more difficult. The more efficient economy will indirectly reduce the threat of conflict, since there will be less competition for scarce resources.

The Global Brain/Mind is one of those rare ideas in history that prove resilient whatever happens in the real world. 9-11 did not diminish Heylighen’s enthusiasm for the idea, which shouldn’t be surprising because neither did anything that occurred in the decade that followed his 2002 essay; including, the invasion of Iraq, the global economic crisis, failure to tackle world impacting phenomena such as climate change, increasing tensions between states, rapidly climbing economic inequality, or the way in which early 21st century global revolutions have played out to date. The hope that our networks will “wake up” and give rise to something like Chardin’s “Omega Point” continues to be widely popular in technology circles, both in the Kurzweilian Singularity variety and even in guises more aligned with traditional religious thinking such as that expounded by the Christian Kevin Kelly in his recent book What Technology Wants.

Part of the problem with seeing our telecommunications networks and especially the Internet as an embryonic form of global brain is that the idea of what exactly a brain is seems stuck in time and has not kept up with the findings of contemporary neuroscience. Although his actual meaning was far more nuanced, Mcluhan’s image of a “global village” suggests a world shrunk to a comfortably small size where all human being stand in the relation of “neighbors” to one another.

The meaning would have been much different had Mcluhan chosen the image of a refugee camp or the city of Oran from Albert Camus’ novel, The Plague. Like the community in Stephen King’s new TV production Under the Dome, Camus’ imagined Oran is hermetically sealed off from the outside world. A self-contained entity that is more a form of suffocation than community.

Much more than Mcluhan, thinkers such as Russell, Barlow or Heylighen see in the evolution of a single entity an increase of unity. The deepening of our worldwide communication networks will in Heylighen’s words “help eliminate conflicts”, and “make it easier to reach global consensus”. This idea that the creation of one entity embracing all the world’s peoples along with the belief that the development of self-awareness by this network is the threshold event both stem from an antiquated understanding of neuroscience. The version of the human brain proponents of the global brain hope the world’s telecommunications networks evolves into is a long discredited picture from the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. If the Internet and our other networks are evolving towards some brain like state it’s pretty important that we have an accurate picture of how the brain actually works.

As far as popular tours through the ganglia of contemporary neuroscience are concerned,none is perhaps better than David Eagleman’s Incognito The Secret Lives of the Brain.  In Incognito, Eagleman shows us how neuroscience has upended one of the deepest of Western assumptions – that of the unity of the self. Here he is in an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air:

EAGLEMAN: Yeah. Intuitively, it feels like there’s a you. So when somebody meets Terry Gross, they feel like: Oh, yeah, that’s one person. But in fact, it turns out what we have under the hood are lots of neural populations, lots of neural networks that are all battling it out to control your behavior.

And it’s exactly a parliament, in the sense that these different political parties might disagree with one another. They’re like a team of rivals in this way, to borrow Kearns Goodwin’s phrase of this. They’re like a team of rivals in that they all feel they know the best way to steer the nation, and yet they have different ways of going about it, just like different political parties do.

You need not be Ulysses who had himself strapped to the stern of his ship so that he could both listen to the song of the Sirens and resist their murderous call to have some intuitive sense of divisions within the self. Anyone who has resisted the urge to hit the snooze button one more time understands this. What is remarkable is how deep modern neuroscience has revealed these internal divisions to be. A person need not suffer Dissociative Disorder with multiple personalities or be a drug addict. The internal rivalry over who we really are is manifest in every decision where we feel pulled in two or more directions at once.

The related idea that Eagleman tries to convey in Incognito is just how small a role self-awareness plays in the workings of the human brain. The vast majority of what the brain does is actually outside of the perception of the consciousness. Indeed, one of the primary roles of self- consciousness is to learn new stuff only to bury it outside of conscious access where further interference from the self-conscious brain will only end up screwing things up. Once you know how to play the piano, ride a bike, or tie your shoelaces actually thinking about it is sure to turn you into a klutz. It’s not even that the self-conscious part of the brain is like George W. Bush “the decider” of our actions. It’s more like the news report of whatever neural faction within us has its hold on the reins of power. Like journalists in general, the self-conscious “I” thinks itself more important than those actually calling the shots.

What is perhaps surprising is that this updated version of the human brain actually does look a lot like the “global mind” we actually have, if not the one we want. The equivalent of the brain’s “neural populations” are the rivalrous countries, corporations,terrorist organizations, criminal groups, NGOs, cooperating citizens and others who populate the medium of the internet. Rival, and not so rival, as in the recent case of the US spying on EU officials, states, use the internet as a weapon of espionage and “cyber war” corporations battle one another for market share, terrorist and criminal entities square off against states and each other. NGOs and some citizen groups try to use the Internet to leverage efforts to make the world a better place.

As for this global brain, such as it is, obtaining self-awareness: if self-awareness plays such a small role in human cognition, why should we expect it to be such a defining feature of any “true” global brain? As Eagleman makes clear, the reason that the human brain exhibits self-awareness is largely a matter of its capacity to learn new things. The job of self-awareness is to make this learning unconscious like the pre- programmed instincts and regulatory functions of the body. Only once they are unconscious is their performance actually efficient. If any global brain follows the pattern of the one between our ears the more efficient it is- the less self-aware it will be.

This understanding of how the brain works has counter-intuitive, and what I think to be largely unexplored implications outside of the question of any global brain. Take the issue of uploading. The idea behind uploading is that our minds are a kind of software where our thoughts and memories can be uploaded offering us a form of immortality. Uploading seems to necessitate its flip-side of downloading as well. In the future if I want to learn how to play the oboe instead of painful practice I will be able to download into my mind all the skills needed to play and in a flash I’ll be hitting out the tunes like Jack Cozen Harel.

Our current understand of the brain seems to throw a wrench into uploading and downloading as far as thoughts are concerned. For one, the plural nature of the brain leaves one wondering which of our neural populations make into into the afterword or whether they should make it through as one entity at all? The gregarious part of myself has never like the introverted bookworm. At death, maybe before, why not make the divorce final and let the two go their separate ways?

Seeing the downloading of thoughts in light of contemporary neuroscience opens up other interesting questions as well. If our self-awareness is most in play when we are going through the tedious steps of learning something new perhaps we should describe it as a slow bandwidth phenomenon? An increase in the efficiency in getting new things into our heads may come at the cost of self-awareness. The more machine like we become the less self-aware we will be.

Those are interesting questions for another time. To return to the global brain: Eagleman made use of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s characterization of Lincoln’s cabinet as “a team of rivals”. With the Civil War fresh in our memories, perhaps we could extend the analogy to say that recent efforts by countries such as China to de-internationalize, or de-Americanize the Internet are something like the beginning of a movement to “secede” from the global brain itself.  As a pre-publication review of Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business:

Ultimately, Schmidt and Cohen even foresee the possibility of the world’s countries deliberately breaking the Internet into several distinct Internets. According to Gara’s reading of the book, the authors “speculate that the Internet could eventually fracture into pieces, some controlled by an alliance of states that are relatively tolerant and free, and others by groupings that want their citizens to take part in a less rowdy and open online life.

Whether such a fracturing would constitute the sort of deep loss Schmidt and Cohen present it as or something much less dire depends on how one values the global brain as it exists today. As I see it, our networks are nowhere near the sort of sentient and essential globe spanning consciousness the global brain’s most vocal advocates wish it to be.

We do, however, have hints of what such a true global brain might look like in things like IBM’s Smart Cities Initiative which allows cities like New York and Rio to get instant feedback from their citizens along with a network of sensors that allow these cities to respond accordingly and target their services.

Yet, what makes something like Smart Cities work is that this feedback is plugged into services and governance with clear paths of response. A similar network of sensors and feedback systems that instead spanned the earth itself would need somewhere to be plugged into. A brain needs a body, but where? As of yet our tools of global governance are not even up to the information steaming from the limited global brain we have. This would allow us to, among much else, not just monitor but care for our earth. To take on the responsibilities of the terrestrial, if not cosmic, adults we are.

As long as we hold that there is some degree of similarity between the network under our skulls and the network civilization we have been constructing since the first telegraph message in 1844- “What hath God wrought?”, then we need to update our understanding of what a global brain would actually be. This needs to be based both on current neuroscience and where our networks are themselves trending in addition to our commitment to actually heed what such networks might tell us. To do otherwise is to be blinded to the truth by our deep longing for a pantheist deity: hugging close like the earth- mother of a child’s fable.

Finding Our Way in the Great God Debate, part 2

Last time, I tried to tackle the raging debate between religious persons and a group of thinkers that at least aspire to speak for science who go under the name of the New Atheists. I tried to show how much of the New Atheist’s critique of religion was based on a narrow definition of what “God” is, that is, a kind of uber-engineer who designed the cosmos we inhabit and set up its laws. Despite my many critiques of the New Atheists, much of which has to do with both their often inflammatory language, and just as often their dismissal and corresponding illiteracy regarding religion, I do think they highlight a very real philosophical and religious problem (at least in the West), namely, that the widely held religious concept of the world has almost completely severed any relationship with science, which offers the truest picture of what the world actually is that we have yet to discover.

In what follows I want to take a look at the opportunities for new kinds of religious thinking this gap between religion and science offers, but most especially for new avenues of secular thought that might manage, unlike the current crop of New Atheists to hold fast to science while not discarding the important types of thinking and approaches to the human condition that have been hard won by religious traditions since the earliest days of humanity.

The understanding of God as a celestial engineer, the conception of God held by figures of the early scientific revolution such as Newton, was, in some ways, doomed from the start predicated not only on a version of God that was so distant from the lives of your average person that it would likely become irrelevant, but predicated as well on the failure of science to explain the natural world from its own methods alone. If science is successful at explaining the world then a “God of the gaps” faces the likely fate that science at some point eventually explains away any conceivable gap in which the need for such a God might be called for.  It is precisely the claim that physics has or is on the verge of closing the gap in scientific knowledge of what Pope Pius XII thought was God’s domain- the Universe before the Big Bang- that is the argument of another atheist who has entered the “God debate”, Lawrence Krauss with his A Universe From Nothing.

In his book Krauss offers a compelling picture of the state of current cosmology, one which I find fascinating and even wonderous. Krauss shows how the Universe may have appeared from quantum fluctuations out of what was quite literally nothing. He reveals how physicists are moving away from the idea of one Universe whose laws seem ideally tuned to give rise to life to a version of a multiverse. A vision in which an untold number of universes other than our own exist in an extended plane or right next to one another on a so call “brane” which will forever remain beyond our reach, and that might all have a unique physical laws and even mathematics.

Krauss shows us not only the past but the even deeper time of the future where our own particular Universe is flat and expanding so rapidly that it will, on the order of a few hundred billion years, be re-organized into islands of galaxies surrounded by the blackness of empty space, and how in the long-long frame of time, trillions of years,  our Universe will become a dead place inhospitable for life- a sea of the same nothing from whence it came.

A Universe from Nothing is a great primer on the current state of physics, but it also has a secondary purpose as an atheist track- with the afterword written by none other than Dawkins himself. Dawkins, I think quite presumptuously, thinks Krauss will have an effect akin to Darwin banishing God from the questions regarding the beginning of the Universe and its order in the same way Darwin had managed to banish God from questions regarding the origin of life and its complexity.

Many people, myself included, have often found the case made by the New Atheists in many ways to be as counter-productive for the future of science as the kind of theologization and politicization of science found in those trying to have Intelligent Design (ID) taught in schools, or deny the weight of scientific evidence in regards to a public issue with a clear consensus of researchers for what amounts to a political position e.g. climate change. This is because their rhetoric forces people to choose between religion and science, a choice that in such a deeply religious country such as the United States would likely be to the detriment of science.  And yet, perhaps in the long-run the New Atheists will have had a positive effect not merely on public discourse, but ironically on religion itself.

New Atheists have encouraged a great “coming out” of both fellow atheists and agnostics in a way that has enabled people in a religious society like the United States to openly express their lack of belief and skepticism in a way that was perhaps never possible before. They have brought into sharp relief the incongruity of scientific truth and religious belief as it is currently held and thus pushed scholars such as Karen Armstrong to look for a conception of God that isn’t, like the modern conception, treated as an increasingly irrelevant hypothesis of held over from a pre-Darwinian view of the world.


Three of the most interesting voices to have emerged from the God Debate each follow seemingly very different tracks that when added together might point the way to the other side. The first is the religious scholar Stephen Prothero. Armstrong’s Case for God helped inspire Prothero, to write his God is Not One (2010.) He was not so much responding to the religious/atheist debate as he was cautioning us against the perennialism at the root of much contemporary thought regarding religion. If the New Atheists went overboard with their claim that religion was either all superstitious nonsense ,or evil, and most likely both, the perennialists, with whom he lumps Armstrong, went far too much to the other side arguing in their need to press for diversity and respect the equally false notion that all religions preached in essence the same thing.


Prothero comes up with a neat formula for what a religion is. “Each religion articulates”:

 

  • a problem;
  • a solution to this  problem, which also serves as the religious goal;
  • a technique (or techniques) for moving from this problem to this solution; and
  • an exemplar (or exemplars) who chart this path from problem to solution. (p. 14)

For Prothero, what religions share is, as the perennialists claim, the fundamentals of human ethics, but also a view that the human condition is problematic. But the devil, so to speak, is in the details, for the world’s great religions have come up with very different identifications of what exactly this problematic feature is ,and hence very different, and in more ways than we might be willing to admit, incompatible solutions   to the problems they identify.

God is Not One is a great introduction to the world’s major religions, a knowledge I think is sorely lacking especially among those who seem to have the most knee-jerk reactions to any mention of religious ideas. For me, one of the most frustrating things about the New Atheists, especially, is their stunning degree of religious illiteracy. Not only do they paint all of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam with the same broad brush of religious literalism and fundamentalism, and have no grasp of religious history within the West, they also appear completely disinterested in trying to understand non-Western religious traditions an understanding that might give them better insight into the actual nature of the human religious instinct which is less about pre-scientific explanations for natural events than it is about an ethical orientation towards the world. Perhaps no religion as much as Confucianism can teach us something in this regard.  In the words of Prothero:

Unlike Christianity which drives a wedge between the sacred and the secular- the eternal “City of God” and the temporal “City of Man”- Confucianism glories in creatively confusing the two. There is a transcendent dimension in Confucianism. Confucians just locate it in the world rather than above or beyond it.

For all these reasons, Confucianism can be considered as religious humanism. Confucians share with secular humanists a single minded focus on this world of rag and bone.  They, too, are far more interested in how to live than in plumbing the depths of Ultimate Reality. But whereas secular humanists insist on emptying the rest of the world of the sacred, Confucians insists on infusing the world with sacred import- of seeing Heaven in humanity, on investing human beings with incalculable value, on hallowing the everyday. In Confucianism, the secular is sacred. (GN1 108)

Religions, then, are in large part philosophical orientations towards the world. They define the world, or better the inadequacies of the world, in a certain way and prescribe a set of actions in light of those inadequacies. In this way they might be thought of as embodied moral philosophies, and it is my second thinker, the philosopher Alain de Botton who in his Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion tries to show just how much even the most secular among us can learn from religion.

What the secular, according to Botton, can learn from religions has little to do with matters of belief which in the light of modern science he too finds untenable. Yet, the secular can learn quite a lot from religion in terms institutions and practices. Religion often fosters a deep sense of community founded around a common view of the world. The religious often see education as less about the imparting of knowledge but the formation of character. Because religion in part arose in response to the human need to live peacefully together in society it tends to track people away from violence and retribution and toward kindness and reconciliation. Much of religion offers us tenderness in times of tragedy, and holds out the promise of moral improvement. It provides the basis for some of our longest lived institutions, embeds art and architecture in a philosophy of life.


Often a religion grants its followers a sense of cosmic perspective that might otherwise be missing from human life, and reminds us of our own smallness in light of all that is, encourages an attitude of humility in the face of the depths of all we do not yet and perhaps never will know. It provides human beings with a sense of the transcendent something emotionally and intellectually beyond our reach which stretches the human heart and mind to the very edge of what it can be and understand.

So if religion, then, is at root a way for people to ethically orient themselves to others and the world even the most avowed atheist who otherwise believes that life can have meaning can learn something from it.  Though one must hope that monstrous absurdities such as the French Revolution’s Cult of the Supreme Being, or the “miraculously” never decomposing body of V.I. Lenin are never repeated.

One problem however remains before we all rush out to the local Church, Temple, or Mosque, or start our own version of the Church of Scientology. It is that religion is untrue, or better, while much of the natural ethics found at the bottom of most religions is something to which we secularists can assent because it was forged for the problems of human living together, and we still live in together in societies, the idea of the natural world and the divinities that supposedly inhabit and guide it are patently false from a scientific point of view. There are two possible solutions I can imagine to this dilemma, both of which play off of the ideas of my third figure, the neuroscientist
and fiction author, David Eagleman.

Like others, what frustrates Eagleman about the current God debate is the absurd position of certainty and narrowness of perspective taken by both the religious and the anti-religious. Fundamentalist Christians insist that a book written before we knew what the Universe was or how life develops or what the brain does somehow tells us all we really need to know, indeed thinks they possess all the questions we should ask. The New Atheists are no better when it comes to such a stance of false certainty and seem to base many of their argument on the belief that we are on the verge of knowing all we can know, and that the Universe(s) is already figured out except for a few loose ends.

In my own example, I think you can see this in Krauss who not only thinks we have now almost fully figured out the origins of the Universe and its fate. He also thinks he has in his hand its meaning, which is that it doesn’t have one, and to drive this home avoids looking at the hundreds of billions of years between now and the Universe’s predicted end.

Take this almost adolescent quote from Dawkins’ afterword to A Universe From Nothing:

Finally, and inevitably, the universe will further flatten into a nothing that mirrors its beginning” what will be left of our current Universe will be “Nothing at all. Not even atoms. Nothing. “ Dawkins then adds with his characteristic flourish“If you think that’s bleak and cheerless, too bad. Reality doesn’t owe us comfort.  (UFN 188).

And here’s Krauss himself:

The structures we can see, like stars and galaxies, were all created in quantum fluctuations from nothing. And the average total Newtonian gravitational energy of each object in our universe is equal to nothing. Enjoy the thought while you can, if this is true, we live in the worst of all possible universes one can live in, at least as far as the future of life is concerned. (UFN 105)

 

Or perhaps more prosaically the late Hitchens:

 

For those of us who find it remarkable that we live in a universe of Something, just wait. Nothingness is headed on a collision course right towards us! (UFN 119)

 

Really? Even if the view of the fate of the Universe is exactly like Krauss thinks it will be, and that’s a Big- Big-  If, what needs to be emphasized here, a point that neither Krauss or Dawkins seem prone to highlight is that this death of the Universe is trillions of years in the future and that there will be plenty of time for living, according to Dimitar Sasselov, hundreds of billions of years, for life to evolve throughout the Universe, and thus for an unimaginable diversity of experiences to be had. Our Universe, at least at the stage we have entered and for many billions of years longer than life on earth has existed, is actually a wonderful place for creatures such as ourselves.  If one adds to that the idea that there may not just be one Universe, but many many universes, with at least some perhaps having the right conditions for life developing and lasting for hundreds of billions of years as well, you get a picture of diversity and profusion that puts even the Hindu Upanishads to shame. That’s not a bleak picture. It one of the most exhilarating pictures I can think of, and perhaps in some sense even a religious one.


And the fact of the matter is we have no idea. We have no idea if the theory put forward by Krauss regarding the future of the Universe is ultimately the right one, we have no idea if life plays a large, small, or no role in the ultimate fate of the Universe, we have no idea if there is any other life in the Universe that resembles ourselves in terms of intelligence, or what scale- planet, galaxy, even larger- a civilization such as our own can achieve if it survives for a sufficiently long time, or how common such civilizations might become in the Universe as the time frame in which the conditions for life to appear and civilizations to appear and develop grows over the next hundred billion years or so. See the glass empty, half empty, or potentially overflowing it’s all just guesswork, even if Krauss’ physics make it an extremely sophisticated and interesting guesswork. To think otherwise is to assume the kind of block-headed certainty Krauss reserves for religious fanatics.  

David Eagleman wants to avoid the false certainty found in many of the religious and the New Atheists by adopting what he calls Possibilism. The major idea behind Possibilism is the same one, although Eagleman himself doesn’t make this connection, that is found in Armstrong’s pre-modern religious thinkers, especially among the so-called mystics, that is the conviction that we are in a position of profound ignorance.

Science has taken us very very far in terms of our knowledge of the world and will no doubt take us much much farther, but we are still probably at a point where we know an unbelievable amount less than will eventually become known, and perhaps there are limits to our ability to know in front of us beyond which will never be able to pass. We just don’t know. In a similar way to how the mystics tried to lead a path to the very limits of human thought beyond which we can not pass, Possibilism encourages us to step to the very edge of our scientific knowledge and imagine what lies beyond our grasp.

I can imagine at least two potential futures for Possibilism either one of which I find very encouraging.  If traditional religion is to regain its attraction for the educated it will probably have to develop and adopt a speculative theology that looks a lot like Eagleman’s Possibilism.  

A speculative theology would no longer seek to find support for its religious convictions in selective discoveries of science, but would  place its core ideas in dialogue with whatever version of the world science comes up with. This need not mean that any religion need abandon its core ethical beliefs or practices both of which were created for human beings at moral scale that reflects the level at which an individual life is lived. The Golden Rule needs no reference to the Universe as a whole nor do the rituals surrounding the life cycle of the individual- birth, marriage, and death at which religion so excels.


What a speculative theology would entail is that religious thinkers would be free to attempt to understand their own tradition in light of modern science and historical studies without any attempt to use either science or history to buttress its own convictions.

Speculative theology would ask how its concepts can continue to be understood in light of the world presented by modern science and would aim at being a dynamic, creative, and continuously changing theology which would better reflect the dynamic nature of modern knowledge, just as theology in the past was tied to a view of knowledge that was static and seemingly eternal. It might more easily be able to tackle contemporary social concerns such as global warming, inequality and technological change by holding the exact same assumptions as to the nature of the physical world as science while being committed to interpreting the findings in light of their own ethical traditions and perspectives.

Something like this speculative philosophy already existed during the Islamic Golden Age a period lasting from the 700s through the 1200s in which Islamic scientists such as Ibn Sina (Avicenna) managed to combine the insights of ancient Greek, Indian, and even Chinese thinking to create whole new field of inquiry and ways of knowing. Tools from algebra to trigonometry to empiricism that would later be built upon by Europeans to launch the scientific revolution. The very existence of this golden age of learning in the Muslim world exposes Sam Harris’ anti-Islamic comment for what it is- ignorant bigotry.

Still, a contemporary speculative theology would have more expansive and self-aware than anything found among religious thinkers before.  It would need to be an open system of knowledge cognizant of its own limitations and would examine and take into itself ideas from other religious traditions, even dead ones such as paganism, that added depth and dimensions to its core ethical stance. It would be a vehicle through which religious persons could enter into dialogue and debate with persons from other perspectives both religious and non-religious who are equally concerned with the human future, humanists and transhumanists, singularitarians, and progressives along with those who with some justification have deep anxieties regarding the future, traditional conservatives, bio-conservatives,  neo-luddites, and persons from every other spiritual tradition in the world.  It would mean an end to that dangerous anxiety held by a great number of the world’s religions that it alone needs to be the only truth in order to thrive.   

Yet, however beneficial such a speculative theology would be I find its development out of any current religion highly unlikely.  If traditional religions do not adopt something like this stance towards knowledge I find it increasingly likely that persons alienated from them as a consequence of the way their beliefs are contradicted by science will invent something similar for themselves. This is because despite the fact that the Universe in the way it is presented by the New Atheists is devoid of meaning this human need for meaning, to discuss it, and argue it, and try to live it, is unlikely to ever stop among human beings. The very quest seems written into our very core. Hopefully, such dialogues will avoid dogma and be self-critical and self-conscious in a way religion or secular ideologies never were before. I see such discussions more akin to works of art than religious-treatises, though I hope they provide the bases for community and ethics in the same way religion has in the past as well.

And we already have nascent forms of such communities- the environmentalist cause is one such community as is the transhumanist movement. So, is something like The Long Now Foundation which seeks to bring attention to the issues of the long term human future and has even adopted the religious practice of pilgrimage to its 10,000 year clock- a journey that is meant to inspire deeper time horizons for our present obsessed culture.

Even should such communities and movements become the primary way a certain cohort of scientifically inclined persons seek to express the human need for meaning, there is every reason for those so inclined to seek out and foster relationships with the more traditionally religious ,who are, and will likely always, comprise the vast majority human beings. Contrary to the predictions of New Atheists such as Daniel Dennett the world is becoming more not less religious, and Christianity is not a dying faith but changing location moving from its locus in Europe and North America to Latin America, Africa, and even Asia. Islam even more so than Christianity is likely to be a potent force in world affairs for some time to come, not to mention Hinduism with India destined to become the world’s most populous country by mid-century. We will need all of their cooperation to address pressing global problems from climate change, to biodiversity, to global pandemics, and inequality. And we should not think them persons who profess such faiths ignorant for holding fast to beliefs that largely bypass the world brought to us by science. Next to science religion is among the most amazing things to emerge from humanity and those who seek meaning from it are entitled to our respect as fellow human beings struggling to figure out not the what? but the why? of human life.

Whether inside or outside of traditional religion the development of scientifically grounded meaning discourses and communities, and the projects that would hopefully grow from them, would signal that wrestling with the “big questions” again offered a path to human transcendence. A path that was at long last no longer in conflict with the amazing Universe that has been shown to us by modern science. Finding such ways of living would mean that we truly have found our way through the great God debate.

Saving Alexandria

One of the most dangerous speeches given by a public intellectual in recent memory was that of Richard Dawkins at the just held Atheist Rally in Washington DC.  Dawkins is a brilliant scientist, and a member of what the philosopher and fellow atheist Daniel Dennett has termed “the brights” a movement seeking to promote a naturalistic as opposed to supernatural view of the world. All this is for the good, and the brights were originally intended to be an inclusive movement that aimed to pull religious as well as non-religious people into a dialogue regarding some of the deeper questions of existence in so far as religious persons shared the same materialist assumptions and language as the secular and scientific mainstream of the movement.

This inclusiveness might have resulted in some very interesting public conversations, something that the neuroscientist David Eagleman has called possibilism- the space between what science definitively knows, and what religion and philosophy imagine. Instead, we have Dawkins’ speech in which he calls on atheist to challenge, “mock”, and “ridicule” the beliefs of religious people. Not only is this an invitation to incivility- where atheist are encouraged to intellectually mug religious persons who probably have not asked to engage in such conversations- it threatens to inflame the very anti-scientific tendencies of modern religion that Dawkins, rightly, opposes and detest.

To challenge religion where it has an immoral, intolerant, or dangerous effect on the larger political society is a duty of all citizens whatever their non-religious or religious persuasions.  Persons of a secular bent, among whom I include myself, need to constantly remind overly zealous religious people that theirs is not the only view and that the separation of church and state exists, not merely for their own, but for all of our protection.

Yet, the last thing science needs is to get into a fist-fight with sincerely religious people about subjects that have no effect whatsoever on the health of the public sphere. When the crowds roared in support of Dawkins’ call that they mock people who hold what he considers absurd beliefs such as that of Catholics regarding transubstantiation (an example he actually uses) one is left wondering whether the barbarians of the future might just as likely come from the secular rather than religious elements in society.

Continued in this vein, Dawkins would transform the otherwise laudable atheist movement into a lightening rod aimed right at the heart of science. No one should want a repeat of what Piss-Christ did to public funding for the arts.

Up until now, the ire of religion towards science has remained remarkably focused- evolution, reproductive technology, and, to a limited and much more dangerous extent- global warming- the last thing we need is for it to be turned on physics- cosmology, neurology or computer science.

Should the religious ever turn their attention to the singularity movement, which, after all, is a religion masking itself as science, they could stifle innovation and thus further exacerbate inequality. If the prophets of the singularity prove to be correct, they may find themselves in a state of war with traditional religion. A cynical minority of religious people may see the singularity as a major threat to their “business model”, but the majority may be reasonably inspired by their dispute with singularians over the necessarily spiritual question of what it means to be human, something the religious hold, with justification, to be their own turf.

Here, the religious may ironically actually hold the humanist higher ground. For it is difficult to see how the deep extension of the human lifespan and creation of artificial forms of intelligence promised by the singularity movement are humanistic ends given the divergence in mortality rates and educational levels between the developing and developed world. In other words, a humanist, as opposed to a trashumanist version of the future would aim at increasing the life expectancy of countries such as Chad, where a person is not expected to live past 50, rather than trying to extend ever outward the lifespan of the wealthy in the developed world. It would also be less inclined to race towards creating a new species of intelligent beings than towards making the most of the intelligent beings who are already here-us- through the old fashioned methods such as education- especially for girls.

In the not too far-off future, class and religious struggles might merge in dangerous and surprising ways, and the explosive growth of religion in the developing world might be mobilized in the name of traditional belief, and in the humanist cause of protecting the species.

Even should none of this dystopian scenario come to pass, religion is already full of anxiety in regards to science, and science imperialistic in its drive to submit every aspect of reality human and non-human alike to its “models” of reality. This anxiety and imperialism has been detrimental for religion and science both.

The confrontation between religion and science has resulted in religion becoming vulgar in the need to translate religious concepts into the “truths” of science- think the Shroud of Turin or the Creation Museum.

At the same time, science turns it sights not so much on undermining the religious world-view as the very nature of belief itself. It is equally vulgar for scientist to strap electrodes onto someone’s brain in the hopes of finding “the god spot” or some such nonsense- as if it means anything that religious belief is “proven” to be a part of neuro-anatomy- what else could it be?

We have known since the ancient Greeks that there are better ways to describe the natural world than religion. Religion isn’t, or shouldn’t be about that. It’s about the mystery of being, the search for meaning, on a human scale, a scale that science cannot provide, about good and evil.

Science may be extremely good at explaining a mental disease such as schizophrenia, and devising effective interventions. What it cannot do, what religion does so well, is to turn the devastating nature of such an illness into a sphere of meaning that can rescue purpose from the cold indifference of the universe. Without some variant of it we will freeze to death.