Comments on "Seriousness of Life (Chap 1 draft)"
by Rev. Sam Norton

Review by Ian Glendinning, (Psybertron WebLog)

Last Updated 30th August 2005

Part of the Psybertron Pirsig Pages
whose aim is to understand and improve upon
Robert Pirsig's "Metaphysics of Quality" (MoQ)

The state of play

Sam, a priest, and myself, an atheist (so far as I can tell) find that we have very similar views about the MoQ, its interpretation and recognition of its deficiencies, and apparent agreement that it nevertheless represents a good framework for modelling "how the world works". As a result we have spent some time comparing our understanding, in open debate on MoQ-Discuss, in commenting on each others blogs, and in private correspondence & discussions.

This review of a work-in-progress draft of a chapter of Sam's book is part of that dialogue.

The introductory Wittgenstein quote

An honest religious thinker is like a tightrope walker. He almost looks as though he were walking on nothing but air. His support is the slenderest imaginable. And yet it really is possible to walk on it. Wittgenstein, 1948

Wittgenstein is a recurring source for Sam (from his Philosophical Investigations days and later). I buy the general idea that communication and knowledge are far more than any logical positivist (early "Tractatus" Wittgenstein) can explain, and that language and (private) experience of the world are involved - to say any more would pre-empt our discussions.

The tightrope walker metaphor recurs all over the place; Nietzsche, Pirsig, Adams, and now Wittgenstein I find. Suffice to say metaphors are very important to any explanation and knowledge generally and any naturally symbolic language.

What I would say about the specific quote is that the word "religious" is redundant in the first sentence. Entirely superfluous. The quote makes no less sense without it, and is more broadly applicable.

The Chapter Headings

These look interesting in terms of what is to come. Some of the headings look a bit unnecessarily "defensive" of religion before it starts ?

The Preface

Quote "I consider my Christian faith to include and perfect science"

(And subsequent liberal inclusive statements.) It is normal human nature to place one's own field at the centre of any debate and to make it hierarchically inclusive of others. In fact we are looking for one common world view (say the MoQ) that explains all others. Naturally I would say that (good) science, fundamentally physics, can be expanded to explain everything in nature, the same way Sam claims this possibility for his religion. A red herring, we're just arguing whose word to use to label the finished article, anyone proposing their own existing term is going to be disappointed by defensive responses from the rest.

Then concluding the preface, quote "if it is God's will, then he will 'make it so'"

Supernatural, mystical or natural (I of course believe it to be a natural concept, explained by natural physics, extended by the MoQ), this is the one aspect of "God" I firmly reject. The personal pronoun, implying a sentient purposeful, willful, intentional, intelligent entity - anthropomorphic or not - just not supported by the merest scrap of evidence or slightest explanation. I am open to god as a name (just like "dynamic quality" in the MoQ, or nature, or physics) to label the transcendent natural causation and explanation of all things. Transcendent in the sense that it is ultimately "unfounded" in any metaphysical bootstrap, but consistent provided one suspends disbelief, based on the evidence, experience and quality of explanation across the whole of the known (knowable ?) part.

Chapter One - The Story of Creation

Three more Wittgenstein quotes ...

The first one; The first two clauses are simply statements of fact, the third is a low-quality rhetorical trick. (Ask any political orator about the rule of three.) Who says the grounds of the latter are well known to the former, and why is he silent on what the latter know about the grounds of the former. Cheap trick.

The second one: Witty piece of rhetoric (much quoted everywhere by people making digs at low quality scientists), but not in itself high quality. Wittgenstein is nearly as clever as Platt.

The third one; From Tractatus, therefore suspect anyway. The problem here is that the we is him (the royal we), and is limited by his limited take on "science". For me a science that doesn't explain the natural world is clearly incomplete - no brainer. He's referring to an old fashioned logical positivist science that is about as much use as a chocolate fireguard in this debate. Again I don't really care what we call the sum (superset) of logical positive science and a "quality" philosophy, but that's what we're looking for - I just call it natural science or physics, or even MoQ.

The Dawkins interview. Find it hard to take seriously. Dawkins is the atheists biggest handicap. The guy cannot stop talking logical positivism (hyper-rationalism) - great in empirical scientific domains, but useless in public. He's an un-reconstructed logical positivist scientist of the type that misled Wittgenstein, and you :-), you're in good company. Dennett falls well short of "explaining consciousness" but he is an infinitely better advocate (In Darwin's Dangerous Idea) for neo-Darwinism than Dawkins, Steve Jones "sounds" better too. Given his natural style of thinking and talking I can't imagine Dawkins saying much intelligent about religion or faith. He makes his scientific belief sound just like religious faith and in doing so does a dis-service to both (Deutsch is much better on belief and judgment).

Sam says "Christianity is not about belief in certain propositions, it is about the orientation of your life."

Clearly that is the assertion that is going to need elaboration in the book. One point - "Christianity" is not the problem for me it's "theism" (as I currently understand). No problem with a prophet extolling moral virtues. However whether the religious "faith" is about what is believed or not, what is believed does matter if it is then used to construct arguments, of any kind. So I'll suspend disbelief for now, on account as it were, until later.

Hundred thousand lemmings ? I made the same joke on MD with hundred billion flies. Knowledge and quality take place in an arena constrained only by nature and the natural order of things, liberal in that sense, but the outcomes are not a democracy of the weight of popular numbers. Which is a good job - I suspect you and I are in a very small minority as we stand. Which is of course why memes are a big issue; Popularity is a winning strategy for a meme.

Openness to rational debate is not the key difference between religious faith and scientific beliefs. They are different things, but the difference is which kinds of reasoning they value - and here of course I'm using my wide interpretation of natural science - not Dawkins'.

Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker quote "I want to persuade the reader, not just that the Darwinian world-view happens to be true, but that it is the only known theory that could, in principle, solve the mystery of our existence"

What he says is true, and fully supported by the MoQ, a fundamental feature of the MoQ in fact. Dawkins is just the worst person to persuade anybody of it. Read Dennett.

Hawking and Davies ? See my first comment about human nature on your preface Sam. With the right god metaphor everyone who believes that their explanation of nature is the best one to build on will make this claim. Me included, on behalf of MoQ. (Brockman's "Third Culture" or "The Edge" is a great place to see this "scientists are the priests of the future" debate - it's all hype, but interesting hype none-the-less.)

Dawkins "trust" in Darwinism ? This is the main point about belief being really suspension of disbelief, nothing more, nothing less, on account, based on "quality" of argument, but ready to be re-set on new evidence. (Again I can't take Dawkins seriously, but hey.)

Natural Selection - that's all DQ with Static Q Latches is about - but this depends on my wider view of nature. Read Dennett (or my blogs about him).

S J Gould (and Lewontin) - Aaaaghhh. Worse than Dawkins, with some weird motivation IMHO (maybe just devil's advocate, maybe worse, like funding or politics or even religion Dennett suggests) - I first dismissed Gould ten years or more ago. You're right that Gould is more culturally aware than Dawkins, but I've never been convinced by the quality of his arguments. Sadly, Dennett spends reams addressing Gould's whackier claims. The point is there a loads of different mechanisms at play in "natural" selection, 'cos nature is awesome and complicated (just complicated enough BTW) - some of them "directed" by (emergent from) natural patterns - hence Hofstadter as well as Dennett.

Sam then asks "How are we to determine the truth between these different accounts (Intelligent-Designer-Creationism and Neo-Darwinian-Evolution) ? 

And then you go on to invoke logic and evidence. Oh please, no Sam. They don't even deserve to start on the same first base (to use a Gouldian metaphor) I'd better read on before I say any more. (But it's the commonest rhetorical trick used by the religious when debating science. It's just not intellectual cricket.)

Sam Says "Humans are rational animals, that is, we are creatures that can apply a mental faculty to the understanding of events and actions."

That's a very old-fashioned view, and entirely dependent on what is meant by "rational" - the whole point of MoQ is to debunk this surely ? Then you follow it with a long section on logic, mainly Aristotelian in its dirty rhetorical trick of using Socrates as his example subject. (Socrates is a freak with two heads, Ho Ho Ho. Socrates has never recovered from that meme.)

Sam says "So logic is really a way of working out if something makes sense ... [and later] ... logic is not concerned with truth or falsehood, but only with consistency and the validity of arguments."

Well as you go on to say - only logical consistent sense based on something logically positive to start with and using purely logical arguments. 100% correct in its own little closed world, but totally useless in our real world debate here. (Let's please heed Godel, after Hofstadter et al.)

Sorry Sam I run out of patience with Chapter one - seems like same old arguments (familiar memes) ... Phlogiston, Flat-earth, Ptolemy / Copernicus / Galileo, Dawkins / Gould, Newton / Einstein blah blah, eventually concluding with "Dawkins' account of evolution is thoroughly Newtonian in its metaphysical assumptions."

Absolutely correct. Hopeless in other words. Why spend any effort analysing it further ? Along the way you ask "... will there be another Einstein to come along in a few hundred years to provide another understanding ..."

Einstein is a metaphor here. This is kind of what was behind my "popular science misconceptions" jibe. You're better than this Sam. Einstein was a genius, but he did not have the last word on these matters any more than you or I or Pirsig or Wittgenstein. If we're going to synthesise something let's not start with something we don't believe in. (I'm re-watching Bronowksi's "Ascent of Man" at the moment - inspirational still, and the guy really got the human side of it.)

I'm that Irishman "If I wanted to get there, I wouldn't start from here." Should I read Chapter 2 or should I wait till we've re-set Chapter 1 ? One A4 page of bullets should do.

End for now