Tuesday, 19 June 2018

What Is Religion?
 An Integral Approach, Part 1

  "The future of religion is extinction."  anthropologist Anthony F.C. Wallace

After over 50 years of religious non-extinction, Wallace’s forecast is beginning to look like the end-times predictions of the Apocalypse.  Wallace was undoubtedly thinking of religion in terms of what he was familiar with, namely the supernaturalistic belief systems found in nearly all traditional cultures.  Today, a more sophisticated definition of ‘religion’ would probably warn him away from any such forecast. 
What has been extinguished is the domination of cultures by pre-modern faith systems associated with the familiar names Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Modern science and philosophy have given rise to a strong secular movement in all the world’s advanced societies, along with a backlash against it in the form of ‘culture wars,’ while violent sectarian wars continue to repeat history.  Clearly religion is not going down for the count anytime soon—actually, I would argue, not ever, for religion properly understood is the human response to our ultimate concerns, and those are inseparable from human life itself.
Religious Studies in the West
Religious studies is a young academic discipline, first added to the curricula of European universities in the late 19th century.  As the academic study of world religions progressed into the late 20th century, it became increasingly clear that the original names western scholars had used for distinguishing religions from one another - Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Shinto, Buddhism, etc., were no longer adequate for understanding the rich complexity of religious expressions in the various cultures of the world.  Hinduism, for example, is no longer thought to be a single religion but rather a family of religious types that differ from one another in certain important ways; e.g. polytheism and monotheism faith systems, among others, co-exist in the sprawling Hindu religious landscape.  The same is true of Christianity, Buddhism, and all the other major traditions.  Clearly a different way of thinking about religious phenomena was called for.  This series is an inquiry into whether there is a ‘best way’ to think about the world’s religions or whether we must settle for a variety of approaches that cannot be reconciled with one another.
In the first two centuries of religious studies, we can distinguish traditional, modern, and postmodern approaches to investigations of religious systems.  Traditionalists reflect a bias in favor of their own religious perspective, and so they look for features of their own religion - Christianity, for example - that might be present in other traditions.  (The term 'religion' itself is a Western creation referring originally (c. 1200 CE) to the binding of Christian monks to God through a set of solemn vows.)  ‘Religion = Christianity’ is the traditional attitude.  Similar sectarian biases are found in the other major traditions.  Modernist scholars take an objective point of view with the aim of making the study of religion scientific.  While vastly increasing our knowledge of the world’s religions, the scientific approach too often tends to reduce religion to psychological, historical, cultural, or even physical factors (neuroscience).  ‘Religion is a psychological illusion’ is one such view.  Less visible but gaining in influence over the last few decades is a postmodern reaction to the narrowness and intolerance of traditionalist and modernist interpretations of the world's religions.  A postmodern perspective is grounded in an empathic and sensitive response to the lives of others despite their profound differences from one's own.  As Professor Frederick Streng writes:
In a quite different kind of response to religious pluralism, a person recognizes that other human beings are as moral, devout, intelligent and religiously sensitive as oneself.  Despite different religious views, other people are equally able to find happiness and peace and to perceive profound meaning in life.  ….. Why not participate in the joys and freedom witnessed to by a different religious option?
Religion and Postmodernism
Postmodern scholars of religion, dissatisfied with traditional and modernist definitions, have searched for a more inclusive,  value-neutral approach.  In his course Cultural Literacy for Religion, Prof. Mark Berkson considers three different types of definitions used today by scholars of religion.  First, a substantive definition identifies a single feature as the essence of religion and uses that to distinguish religious phenomena from non-religious.  One such substantive definition is:  religion is belief in supernatural beings and ritual practices aimed at connecting people with those beings.  Another type of definition is functional.  This approach sees religions as social systems providing answers and meanings to communities of people who are bound together by a common set of beliefs and practices.
All such definitions seem too narrow to postmodernist scholars.  Berkson prefers what he calls a "family resemblance" type of definition in which a list or cluster of characteristics commonly associated with religion are used to compare the various traditions.  Prof. Ninian Smart's widely cited "Seven Dimensions of Religion" is an example of this type:
The Seven Dimensions of Religion
Ritual: Forms and orders of ceremonies (private and/or public)
Narrative and Mythic: stories (often regarded as revealed) that work on several levels. Sometimes narratives fit together into a fairly complete and systematic interpretation of the universe and human's place in it.
Experiential and emotional: private, individual experiences of dread, guilt, awe, mystery, devotion, liberation, ecstasy, inner peace, bliss
Social and Institutional: belief system and attitudes shared and practiced by a group; rules for identifying community membership and participation
Ethical and legal: rules about human behavior (often regarded as revealed from a supernatural realm)
Doctrinal and philosophical: systematic formulation of religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form
Material: ordinary objects or places that symbolize or manifest the sacred or supernatural.
The Smart/Berkson approach looks promising.  Rather than defining religion in terms of a single, narrow common feature or function, we are invited to consult a checklist of characteristics that the best known traditions exhibit and say that any phenomenon that has those characteristics is a religion.  The checklist approach includes substantive and functional aspects, and its flexibility prevents it from being either too narrow or too broad.  However, there is a problem if the claim is made that all seven dimensions are necessary conditions for some activity to be called religious.   Zen Buddhism, for example, has no system of “religious teachings in an intellectually coherent form.”  A solitary yogin meditating in a cave may have no use for ritual, doctrine, organization, or symbolic objects.  Confucianism does not offer much in the way of narrative or myth.  And yet these are all commonly recognized as religions.

It appears that some important religions will have some but not all of the characteristics in the list.  How many are required?  Which of the seven are the most important?  What if the list is inaccurate? - another system posits twelve defining characteristics.  The ‘family resemblance’ approach has a lot of appeal but is ultimately unsatisfying.  It lacks the simplicity and elegance we would like to have for a proper theory of religion.  My philosophical instinct is to look for a higher level definition that will unify the various lists by subsuming them under a single, concise conception of the fundamental nature of religious life.

Sometimes in cases like this it helps to reformulate the question.  Taking a hint from functionalism, let us ask, What is religion for?  Religion is not something that happens to people; it is something they do.  It's a purposeful activity.  Is there a common purpose that religious people share, while the specific forms of their pursuit of that purpose may be many and varied?  Many years ago I stumbled upon an answer to this question that has served me well ever since.  It was proposed by a widely admired professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, Dr. Frederick J. Streng.  In his book Understanding Religious Life, Streng offered the following definition:
“Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation.”
This definition emerged from an attempt to understand religion primarily 'from within,' from the standpoint of the individual believer, disciple, or devotee, rather than from the third-person perspective of social science.  This was the approach taken by a group of scholars, led by Dr. Streng, who came to some prominence in the late 1970's and 80's with a series of books under the general title, The Religious Life of Man.  The theoretical explication and application of their definition I will refer to as Ultimate Transformation Theory (UTT).
The UTT scholars discovered three universal characteristics among people living what they consider to be religious lives: 
1. Religion is a way of life organized around a person’s ultimate concerns.
2. All religions challenge individuals to transform their lives toward a resolution of those concerns.
3. Every religion offers specific means for achieving an ultimate transformation.
These elements are captured in their definition "Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation."  Now definitions in philosophy, science, and all other fields are meant to do work for us, not merely to languish passively between the covers of dictionaries. Let's see how “Religion is a means toward ultimate transformationhas been put to work to help consolidate our understanding of the bewildering variety of religious expressions in the world.  That will put us in a position to inquire as to whether the project requires updating in light of new facts and insights.
My central thesis is that, following UT theory, whatever surface differences may be discerned among the world’s religious traditions, the single deep, essential, common element in each is a program giving  individuals the means of transforming their lives toward resolving their ultimate concerns.  In the absence of this core feature, no way of life can be called religious.  Given that assumption, along with the claim that a postmodern perspective is the fairest, least biased approach available, our task now is to see how our definition might provide the best available orientation for investigating the phenomenon of religious life.

Ways of Being Religious
In their researches, the UTT scholars discovered eight significant "Ways of Being Religious": four traditional-transcendental and four contemporary-secular.  In their book of collected writings, Ways of Being Religious, the eight types are displayed in a chart (Figure 1 below) showing  how each one interprets four basic elements of any religious process: 1) the Problem; 2) the Answer; 3) the Means as Appropriated Individually, and 4) the Means as Appropriated Socially.  The underlying premise of the system is that religion is a response to one or more perceived fundamental problems confronting humans, such as ignorance or fear of death.  An individual's response to the problem would include an idea of what the answer might be, that is, the nature of the personal transformation that would solve the problem, and the means or methods to be undertaken in order to achieve an ultimate transformation. 
As I have noted, this approach to understanding religion is quite different from the rejectionist and reductionist tendencies found in traditional and modern systems. UT theorists take a postmodern perspective called religious pluralism, in which the many varieties of religious life are regarded as "equally active in the world," with none enjoying a privileged position as superior in some way to any other.  This view is reflected in the horizontal arrangement of the eight "ways of being religious" on the charts in Figures 1, 2, and 3 below.  They appear there as options open for anyone's appropriation or appreciation, depending on their underlying worldview or perhaps on their personality. 
UT theory offers a refreshing break from the sectarian and reductionistic definitions of the past.  It appeals to progressive thinkers who are sensitive to the challenges posed by our postmodern, multicultural, globally connected world.  They are disturbed by the culture wars (and sometimes real wars) fought among religions and between religious believers and secularists.  These philosophers - postmodern pluralists - are opposed to the absolutism and exclusivity of traditional faiths, but also to the equally absolutist tendencies of modernists who dismiss all religions in favour of a science-based materialism.  Pluralists embrace a relativistic epistemology in which all so-called ‘truth’ is seen as historical, contextual, and contingent.  Privileging any point of view above others is frowned upon.  Perspectives are innumerable.  Let a thousand worldviews flourish.  Mutual understanding,  tolerance, and cooperation are what we need in these dangerous times, not culture wars.  
By delivering the simplicity and elegance of a proper theoretical definition, the UTT definition avoids the messiness of the checklist approach.  Possessing a good working definition, however, is only a beginning.  The task of corralling the vast array of religious expressions that flourish in today’s world is by no means easy.  The UT scholars have pointed us in a new and promising direction, but, not surprisingly for pioneers, they produced less than perfect results in the full elaboration of their theory.  Despite its postmodern appeal, the UT theory of religious types has some important weaknesses. The two most significant are first, a failure to distinguish between states and structures of religious consciousness and, second, to miss the developmental spectrum of stages implicit in their list of “Eight Ways of Being Religious.”
To the first of these, it is not clear that the first religious type charted in Figure 2 is really a way of living a religious life.  Notice the striking difference between "Personal Experience of the Holy" and the other seven types.  Each of those seven can easily be understood as a genuine way of life, that is, a program of religious activities that can be enacted over and over - every day even - throughout a person's life.* By contrast, "Personal Experience of the Holy" refers to dramatic, unpredictable, short-lived, unrepeatable, and rare eruptions of spiritual energy or emotion that cannot be harnessed into an ongoing spiritual practice in the same way as daily prayer or meditation. 
Such experiences are states of consciousness, not stable structures or repeatable practices. It is true, as UT theory stresses, that an experience of the Divine mysterium tremendum often results in a dramatic change in a person’s life going forward: from sensuous indulgence to moderation; from selfishness to generous service, etc., but the  means employed in daily living after the transforming experience are independent of the experience itself which, after a time, becomes a distant memory.  The new life of the ’born again’ person becomes a way of being religious that is distinct from having a vision of Krishna or receiving a revelation from Allah, even though the new way of life obviously originated with the Divine Encounter.  For example, the vision experienced by St. Paul led him to become “apostle to the gentiles” and the founder of the Christian Church.  Those activities are properly classified in the UTT scheme as “Creation of Community Through Myth and Ritual.” After his revelation experience, Mohammed founded Islam which promotes “Daily Living That Expresses Cosmic Law.” 
If these examples are typical, then it appears the lives that are changed by one or more “Personal Experiences of the Holy” usually morph into the “Community Through Myth and Ritual” type or the “Daily Conformity with Cosmic Law,” or perhaps even “Spiritual Freedom Through Discipline,” whichever is the default social expression of religiosity in the given culture.  Those three and the rest of the types identified in UTT, (with the possible exception of “Creation of the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,”)* can be called structures (or stages, as we will see), because, unlike state experiences, they are relatively permanent or stable, often over a lifetime.  For example, a person born into a religious community of the myth and ritual type, e.g. Roman Catholicism, might remain in that faith for his or her entire life.
The second problem is that religious pluralism suffers from the absence of any recognition of religious or spiritual development in humans.  Religious development?  The notion is not as strange as it may first appear.  We are all familiar with the observable development of children through stages - from infancy to early childhood to adolescence to adulthood, but not until recently have researchers thought to expand inquiry into development across cultural boundaries.
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* Sensuous experiences are also states of consciousness, not structures, but they are repeatable, so I have treated the eighth type in the UTT scheme below as a stage/ structure (see “Creating the Full Life Through Sensuous Experiences,” Stage 1 in Figure 4 below.)  


Figure 1 (detailed more legibly in Figures 2 and 3)
In the last hundred years or so, the application of social-scientific methods to the study of human development have greatly expanded our understanding of how and in what ways humans grow and mature over a lifetime.  Studies of biological and cognitive development, for example, have been with us for a long time, but in the last 50 years many more "multiple intelligences" or lines of consciousness development have been discovered and thoroughly researched: aesthetic, emotional, moral, interpersonal, and many others.  In his book Integral Psychology, philosopher Ken Wilber researched and correlated over 100 developmental models. 

What does ‘development’ mean in our context?  In Part 2 of this series, I will explore this question and then discuss how religious development theory requires us to make an important shift in our understanding of religion in general.


Figure 2




Figure 3
[Figures 2 and 3 are adapted from the chart (Figure 1 above) in F. Streng, et al,
Ways of Being Religious: a New Approach to Religion (1985).]


Figure 4
What Is Religion?
 An Integral Approach, Part 2
Religion as a Universal Developmental Process
Most people are aware that humans develop through various stages from infancy to early childhood to adolescence, to adulthood.  We commonly refer to this process as “growing up,” which suggests a hierarchy of stages or levels from lower to higher, through which individuals normally become more physically mature, more knowledgeable, more competent, more sociable, more responsible, and so on, as they move over time from lower to higher stages of development.  The chart below illustrates a simple 4-stage process of growth in humans:
(Different schemes with more or fewer stages are possible.)
Developmental psychologists and philosophers have discovered the pattern that governs the transition from one stage to the next.  They call it “transcend- and-include,” which means that in a person’s transformation from a lower stage to a higher, certain characteristics that are no longer functional fall away to be replaced (transcended) by more functional ones. However, the earlier stage is not entirely extinguished or sloughed off - fundamental elements of each stage are incorporated or included in the next higher stage, while new characteristics appear that replace or transcend those elements.  For example, language ability appears early in a child’s life in the form of baby talk.  As the child becomes socialized, she drops the infantile language that is no longer adequate and learns more grammatical ways of speaking.  But the basic capacity for language that she acquired in early childhood is retained and carried forward all the way to adulthood with the potential for the individual at higher stages to learn and employ deeper features of language, such as grammar, rhetoric, and linguistics, which cannot be mastered by children.  Thus, the lower stages of language development are transcended but also partially included in the progression to higher stages.
The same pattern is discernible in religious development.  For example, in the transition from magical to mythic consciousness (Figure 1), a child no longer believes she causes the clouds to follow her on her walks or make the world disappear by hiding her head under a pillow.  She has learned to differentiate herself from nature and from other people.  No longer able to believe in her own omnipotent powers, she is open accepting the story of divine intervention in the world taught by her mythic culture, e.g. orthodox Judaism or Christianity.  Now she has learned that God controls things, not her puny self as previously imagined.  So the magic has receded from the child’s worldview,* but her self-consciousness (growing now) and the need for a Governing Power in her life is retained in the new mythic perspective of her faith community.

Returning to the bigger picture of religious development, let us look more closely at  the religious or spiritual intelligence line.  The premise of research into this phenomenon shares the view of UTT (Ultimate Transformation Theory, described in Part 1 of this essay) that from the earliest appearance of self-consciousness, humans have ultimate concerns about their survival, health, safety, social belonging, self-esteem, and the inevitability of death.  However, it seems clear that an individual’s ultimate concerns change during the process of normal growing up, which means their religious or spiritual development will proceed from infancy to adulthood in stages or levels of increasing depth and sophistication.  A three-year-old child’s ultimate concerns and means of resolving them are different from those of a Muslim high school student and those again are different from those of a 30-year-old practitioner of Zen Buddhism.  The UT model does not include an account of those differences, probably because the importance of development in religiosity was not well understood in the 1970’s and 80’s.  The task of exploring that issue has been taken up in recent decades by scholars specializing in cross-cultural investigation of religious/spiritual development.
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*Receded but not entirely vanished from the believer’s life.  Magical thinking remains as an unconscious perspective that is still available to the imagination.   That is why a rational adult can still enjoy movies like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings.

Stages of Religious Development

Despite differences among researchers, there is widespread agreement on six to eight major stages or levels of religious development in individuals and culture from the earliest appearance of self-consciousness to the highest transpersonal levels of enlightenment.  Figure 1 below displays one such model, adapted from the work of James Fowler who investigated ‘Stages of Faith’ (religion, spirituality) as a distinct line of development in humans.  Fowler’s stages correlate closely with the developmental models of other researchers such as Jean Gebser, Clare Graves, and others, all of which have been correlated by Ken Wilber and mapped in a comprehensive system called Integral Theory.  Figure 2  shows how Fowler’s stages correlate with the color spectrum used by Integral Theory to represent the levels/stages of any developmental model.
Obviously Fowler’s vertical classification of religions differs from the horizontal one used by the UT theorists.  Are the two systems compatible?  Yes.  First of all, the UT definition of ‘religion’ as a means toward an ultimate transformation works for both approaches (or any other, as I have argued).  Secondly, as you can see in      Figure 2, the eight ‘Ways of Being Religious’ in UT theory can be mapped alongside Fowler’s integral spectrum, revealing possible developmental relationships among UTT's "Non-traditional Ways of Being Religious."  My arrangement - vertical and hierarchical from lower to higher - is open to challenge, of course, but some sort of vertical representation is required if the UT scheme is to meet the challenge of 21st century developmentalism.  Postmodernists tend to hate hierarchies, but it is difficult to see how the massive evidence for development theories can be ignored. 
Can the same stages of development be identified in the major traditional religions?  The evidence that they can is strong, first, because the spiritual stages in Fowler's spectrum are simply the distinct line versions of the basic stages of consciousness that are common to all humans (Figure 1).  Every human is born at archaic, grows into magic, then mythic, and so forth.  In his book Evolution’s Ally, Dustin Diperna marshals evidence to show that all the major traditions contain at least 5 levels of religious development.  For example, there are magic versions of Christianity, mythic versions, rational versions, and so on. The same holds true for Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc.  Figure 3  displays Diperna’s integral spectrum for Christianity along with prominent contemporary exemplars. 
Figure 1

Figure 2


Spectrum of Development
in Christianity 

             Figure 3

                 (from D. Diperna, Evolution's Ally)

Conclusion
The topic of this essay is of more than academic interest.  Because religion is about people’s ultimate concerns, it has, at least in modern times, occupied considerable space in public discourse.  As indicated earlier, people all over the world line up on one side or another to do battle in what are now called “culture wars.”  Like real wars, wars of words among religious antagonists are destructive, but unlike real wars they are endless.  Unless, that is, some way can be found to honor all sides in some kind of a peace treaty.  Recent efforts to achieve this - the Christian ecumenical movement and the Dalai Lama’s religious “secularism,” for example - have not been notably successful.  Nor have the well-intentioned postmodern approaches that flatten the religious landscape, ignoring crucial differences among faith systems in favour of a buffet of equal “options.” 
Such efforts will continue to be unsuccessful if ‘religion’ remains poorly defined from the outset.  In his book A Sociable God, Ken Wilber carefully distinguishes nine different  meanings in common use today.  He rightly asserts that all are legitimate but takes scholars to task for not carefully specifying what meaning they have in mind in a given context.  Confusion is too often the result.  I have taken Wilber a step further, arguing in this essay that, when talking about religion in general, it would be ideal to use a  definition that captures the universal essence of all religious expressions and that just such a definition is available.

Religion is a means toward ultimate transformation takes religion seriously in its own terms and locates the center of its expression where it fundamentally resides: in the mind and heart of the individual living a religious life.  There can be little doubt that everyone has ultimate concerns. Life imposes them on us and virtually forces us to deal with them, to seek some way or ways to alleviate the uncertainty and anxieties that attend our awareness of them.  With a definition that captures ultimate concern as our universal point of departure, we are positioned to distinguish the various types of religious commitment, not on the basis of their behavioral, cultural, or institutional expression - important to be sure, but secondary to the concerns of the individual - but focused laser-like on each person’s conception of an ultimate transformation and how it might be achieved. 
The UTT definition provides us with a powerful tool for separating the essential elements of a religion from its culturally determined surface features.  Ancient Stoicism, for example, names Zeus as the creator of the world, but, unlike The Lord in Judaism, Zeus does not demand worship as a condition of salvation.  Stoics aim at an ultimate transformation in this life through the cultivation of reason and virtue.  Thus our definition enables us to see beneath the surface similarity of theistic belief to the deeper difference of the means of transformation offered in the two religious traditions.  Integral Theory deepens our understanding by revealing the vertical, developmental relationship between the two.  Whereas orthodox Judaism is ethnocentrically rooted in mythological faith and ritual practice, stoicism is grounded in worldcentric principles of reality and morals discoverable by reason.

Finally, incorporating the UTT definition into Integral Theory provides the basis for a much-needed postmodern understanding of all religious phenomena as legitimate in their own right as enactments of various stages of development through which all humans must pass.  UT scholars have illustrated with their “Eight Ways of Being Religious” that broad critiques of religious belief systems are superficial, missing the deep interest of believers in personal transformation. As I have argued, their system needs updating with a distinction between states and stages of consciousness and recognition of a hierarchy of religious stages in human evolution.  Those features are fully developed in contemporary Integral Theory, which provides us with the most comprehensive framework available today for understanding the religions of the world.

In a nutshell, then, I have argued that religion is best thought of as a deep feature of the evolution of consciousness in which an individual at each of several stages of 'growing up' perceives life to be profoundly unsatisfactory in some ways and seeks a transformation of those ultimate concerns by means appropriate to one's stage of development.  From instinctual to magical to mythic to rational and higher, the unfolding of our lives reveals ever greater challenges and suggests a path toward meeting them.  "Put more vividly, the claim [of religion] is that one is threatened by illusion but that he can move toward truth; by death but that he can move toward life; by chaos, but that he can move toward meaning; by self-destruction but that he can move toward an abundant life."  (F. Streng, Ways of Being Religious)
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  For more on Integral Theory, see Ken Wilber, A Theory of Everything (2000) and The Religion  of Tomorrow (2017).  For a detailed integral study of the world's religious traditions, see Dustin Diperna, Evolution’s Ally (2016).  Ways of Being Religious, by Frederick Streng, et al. is unfortunately out of print.


Thursday, 11 January 2018

Disappreciating Nationalism
I love America and am grateful to be a citizen. However, I’m really more of a globalist than a nationalist. This is largely due to the progressive culture I’ve been immersed in most of my life, which tends to view nationalism and patriotism as slightly embarrassing, and even somewhat suspect.
                       - Steve McIntosh, "Appreciating the Upside of Nationalism"
Steve McIntosh is co-founder and president of the Institute for Cultural Evolution and a proponent of Integral Theory.  He recently posted an essay titled "Appreciating the Upside of Nationalism" (click here to read the full text).  The following is an expanded version of my response to his piece.
I usually find SM's take on cultural issues enlightening.  Not this time.  The essay, which compares and contrasts nationalism and globalism, is disappointing in its vague use of the terms and lack of rigor.  It offers no definition of 'nationalism' or 'globalism,' rendering the comparison of the two just about useless. 
To be blunt, I can think of almost nothing good to say about nationalism, usually understood as an attitude of positive regard towards one's own nation-state to the exclusion of others.  Expressed in a fan's rooting for a country's team in the Olympics, nationalism is harmless enough, I suppose.  But except as a rallying cry for overthrowing or preventing domination by another country, nationalism is irrational.  It is a form of ethnocentrism, by definition narrow and exclusive, too easily given to hostility towards other nations and ethnicities, often tainted by racism and/or religious bias.  Wars, ethnic cleansing, or genocide are too often the results, as in the horrors suffered by the Rohingya in Myanmar as I write, not to mention the horrors already perpetrated and more to come from Trump's "America First" project.
Despite the ascendancy of a xenophobic, extreme nationalist to the presidency and the white nationalism Trump has unleashed onto the streets of the nation's cities, McIntosh professes reluctance to give up "nationalistic patriotism,".  Both nationalism and globalism, McIntosh thinks, can be embraced if one understands them as an "interdependent polarity."  He means by this that nationalism requires globalism and vice-versa.  Healthy versions of both work interactively to produce optimal conditions for human life in the 21st century.  This is almost certainly wrong. 
Where is a healthy version of nationalism to be found today that is not at the same time naive about the historical reality of the nation-state?  Certainly not in the upsurge of right-wing populism, neo-Nazism, and various separatist movements around the world. Nor in the historically ignorant appeals of liberals to "the real values on which our nation was founded." The nation McIntosh loves was discovered by thieves and murderers, and founded by slaveowners. The US has never been totally honest about its history and has never come to terms with it, as Germany mostly has, for example.
Nationalism today is particularly irrational since most nation states are multicultural.  What exactly is the national identity of a Caucasian citizen of the United States, a Muslim immigrant, a Latino undocumented worker, a Member of the (black) Nation of Islam, a football player who takes a knee in protest about racist police, or a Trump voter who yearns for the return of the Confederacy?  What is a Canadian in an officially multicultural country that recognizes Quebec and aboriginal peoples as "distinct nations?"  National identity is a dangerous delusion, especially in a globalizing world that is making national boundaries irrelevant to economic activities and cultural interactions. 
If globalism means more than global integration of communication, transportation, banking systems, and trade deals - what is usually called 'globalization' - if it means instead a postmodern embrace of the entire planet and its inhabitants as the ultimate locus of ethical concern, then nationalism and globalism are not an "interdependent polarity."  Their relationship is hierarchical, as any integralist* of SM's stature should realize. Globalism in this sense transcends nationalism but also includes it in the way all postmodern phenomena include the modern.  That is not interdependence.  Nationalism can thrive quite nicely without globalism, as the current upsurge in right-wing populism worldwide demonstrates.  But the reverse is not true.  Globalism requires nationalism as the earlier stage out of which it has itself developed.  It includes it by accepting the stage structure of the nation state as a political necessity, but rejects the exclusionary, ethnocentric psychology and culture that it inevitably produces in the populations of less mature countries. 
At its worst, nationalism is a political ideology that, as philosopher A.C. Grayling observes, "is a recipe for disaster.....of more use to demagogues and separatists than anyone else" …. as evidenced by the current state of the world.
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* For information on Integral Theory, click here. 

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

 Is Science a Branch of Philosophy?
"There is no such thing as philosophy-free science."  - Daniel Dennett
Every now and then, philosophers in our time have to circle the wagons against critics who announce the triumph of science and the death of philosophy.  You may be aware of the  obituaries announced by such science celebrities as Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye the Science Guy who famously declaims, "science rules."1  After all, they think, philosophy is vague, abstract, jargon-laden, fascinated with linguistic minutiae, too much in thrall to its own fusty history, and - worst of all - plagued with disagreements that are never resolved.  That's why philosophy makes no progress, whereas science progresses ever more rapidly in its accumulation of knowledge and provable theories about the world that have made possible the astonishing advances in technology that have improved the lives of all of us.  There is some truth in all this but also a lot of nonsense.
That scientists would pontificate foolishly about philosophy is bad enough, but it's especially annoying when a philosopher chimes in with a 'me too.'   One such is Professor David Livingstone Smith of the University of New England, who recently posted a piece on the Philosophy Talk blog titled "Truth and Progress in Philosophy," in which he professed helplessness when confronted with his students' frustration about not getting answers to philosophical questions.  "These students," he writes, "aren't frustrated because philosophy doesn't give them any answers.  They're frustrated because it gives them too many answers." [with no way of deciding which is correct. - brackets mine] Take, for example, the freedom/determinism issue.  There are three major positions that have been debated for decades, maybe centuries:  hard determinism, indeterminism, and compatibilism.2  Smith says he can't tell his students which one is true and explains in his blogpost why he thinks that question and all other philosophical issues must remain forever unresolved. 
Unlike Hawking and Tyson, however, Smith does not conclude that philosophy is useless.  He grants that philosophy cannot determine the truth about its own questions but professes to be unconcerned about that, because philosophy performs a different role which he apparently considers to be of redeeming value. Philosophy, he claims, "is in the options business, not the truth business."  Truth is the business of science.  Philosophy's job is merely to search out the many alternative ways of answering deep questions and to "spell out their implications."  
The first disaster to notice in this line of thinking is that it is logically incoherent.  The professor has committed what is known in the trade as a performative contradiction, a fallacy that occurs when a statement is contradicted by the act of speaking or thinking it.  "I am not aware of anything right now" is an obvious example.  
Smith's dictum has two parts: (a) philosophy is in the options business, and (b) philosophy is not in the truth business.  Now, owing to the fact that he develops a supporting argument for it, we can be pretty certain that Smith thinks (b) is true, not merely his opinion.  Trouble is, you can't assert as true a proposition that says it can't be asserted as a truth.  Descartes implicitly understood this when he hit upon his famous Cogito, ergo sum:  its denial - "I am not thinking; I do not exist," is refuted by the act of expressing or thinking it.  Philosophy is "not in the truth business" is self-refuting in the same way.  If it is true that philosophy is not in the truth business, then you cannot consistently engage in that very business. 
Once we understand this, we see also that in part (a), Smith commits the same fallacy (despite the fact that (a) is true!).  It should be clear what a disaster this is.  If he persists in this way of thinking, then none of his students or colleagues can ever take seriously what he says, and his continuing to teach philosophy constitutes a fraud.  Unfortunately, many thinkers agree with Smith, including some philosophers, with sad consequences for our culture at large. 
This could be the end of my critique, but, setting aside the contradictions, we can still learn some interesting things from the rest of what Prof. Smith has to say.  Here are the main points of his argument concluding that science wins, philosophy loses:
1. Science has evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made spectacular progress.
2. Philosophy lacks both evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made little progress.
3. The problem is that most philosophers have not understood their mission:
"The question of whether philosophy has progressed can only be answered by answering a deeper question. What’s the goal of philosophy? What are we after—or rather, what should we be after—when we’re doing philosophy? Whatever the answer to this question is, it’s not the pursuit of truth. …. Its job is to show that there are many ways of addressing a problem, and to spell out the implications of these alternatives.  …. Finding lots of answers, without having the resources, all on its own, to decide which of them are the right answers is what philosophy is all about."
Besides being a performative contradiction, this view of philosophy plays right into the hands of critics like Hawking, Tyson, and others who think philosophy is dead or useless.  What's the point of "finding lots of answers" and endlessly debating the alternatives when none of them can be proved a winner?  Waste of time.  Money spent on philosophy departments could be used instead to fund worthy scientific projects.
The negation of philosophy constitutes an act of rational suicide, a disaster at a time when we are led to believe we live in a "post-truth" world of "fake news" and "alternative facts."  As we will see, if there are no philosophical truths, there are no scientific truths either and therefore no truth at all; only opinions and no one's opinion is preferable to any other.  Fortunately, there is no good reason to buy into this postmodern delusion.  Let's examine the argument one point at a time:
1. Science has evidence and reliable methods.
True.  The scientific method, with its rejection of religious and other types of dogmatic authority, its insistence on careful observation, experimentation, and peer review, is undeniably the most powerful instrument for understanding the natural world ever developed by humans.  Let's not exaggerate its reliability, however.  The triumphs of science are too often allowed to obscure the many blind alleys and failures working scientists have always had to suffer through before making a breakthrough.  In fact, failures outnumber the successes, and progress is achieved in fits and starts, not in one smooth arc of accumulation.  Still, science's record of achievement and progress speaks for itself.
2. Philosophy lacks both evidence and reliable methods.  That's why it has made little progress.
One at a time.  "Philosophy lacks evidence?"  The assumption here obviously is that philosophy, as commonly understood today, doesn't have the kind of evidence that science has, namely hard observational and experimental evidence.  Well, no it doesn't, because philosophy does different kinds of work that require different kinds of evidence.  Mathematics doesn't have scientific evidence either, but no one thinks mathematical reasoning doesn't produce truth.  By contrast, lots of people think philosophy produces no truth, but that's because they don't know the nature or scope of the work philosophers actually perform, and therefore do not know what counts as evidence in philosophical reasoning.  Clearing up these misunderstandings requires turning to my next question.
"Philosophy has no reliable methods?"  This news would come as a surprise to the authors of such books as The Philosophers' Toolkit, by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, which describe a multitude of strategies and heuristics available to philosophers, many of which have been built up over thousands of years.  Philosophical methods exist in abundance; they just happen to be different from the methods employed by scientists.  They are strategies for careful thinking.  For example, logic, which was invented by philosophers, provides us with a wealth of knowledge about how to distinguish good from bad reasoning.  
In addition to those formal techniques, philosophers have devised numerous heuristics such as thought-experiments, analogies, reductio ad absurdum disproofs, counter-examples, fallacy identification, and many others which have proven their effectiveness for analyzing and evaluating the ideas of any discipline or type of discourse, including mathematics and science.  Science itself relies on many of the principles and strategies of logic.   
Ironically, scientific method was worked out by philosophers or by thinkers who were both philosophers and scientists (Francis Bacon, Galileo, Descartes), not by specialists in physics or biology.  Think about what this means:  scientific method itself is a reliable philosophical method!  Which leads me to my next criticism of the debunkers of philosophy.
Never the twain shall meet or joined at the hip?
All the critics who think philosophy must leave the pursuit of truth to science assume a sharp distinction between the two.  Science discovers truth; philosophy does not.  On what grounds is this strong distinction made?  Certainly not the testimony of history. For at least 2000 years, no such distinction was made by thinkers who indulged their curiosity about the world and human life.  Philosophy was traditionally considered the rational search for truth and wisdom in the broadest sense of those terms.  Philosophers inquired about everything.  The study of nature - science to us - was merely one branch of philosophy; specialists like Isaac Newton were called 'natural philosophers.'  Other major branches - logic, ethics, etc. - were known to be different in some ways from one another, but all were understood to be parts of the largest project in human thinking, the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
Only in the modern era from the 19th century onward, owing partly to the very scientific revolution that philosophical geniuses made possible, were the two domains professionalized and eventually departmentalized in universities.  That led in our time to a decree of divorce: "science rules," independent and triumphant; philosophy muddles along doing who knows what.  Let us not be deceived by this decree absolute.  It is spurious.
The historical connection has never been entirely severed, as evidenced by the enormous attention given to philosophy of science in the last 100+ years. 
In our time, the triumphs of modern science can be honored without divorcing them from their ancient parent.  In fact, no such divorce is possible. All the major sciences today - physics, chemistry, biology, etc. - rest on assumptions that cannot be proven by their methods. That is the meaning of Daniel Dennett's claim that there is no philosophy-free science.   For example, scientists assume that there is a pre-given world of matter and energy that can be studied objectively; that the future will resemble the past; that every event has a cause; that religious faith has no role to play in the study of nature.  None of those can be validated by the methods of science.  Working out the meaning of such assumptions and whether they are valid or not are tasks that belong to philosophy. The scientific method itself - its nature, its claim to validity, and its limitations cannot be studied by means of observation and experiment.  It is not a fact to be observed but rather a set of ideas needing interpretation and validation.  Investigating ideas is the business of philosophy. 
Many other questions about science deserve our attention.   Here are a few examples. What is the difference between a hypothesis and a theory?  What is an explanation?  What is the value of string theory?  Are the laws of nature eternal or are they subject to change?  Is a physical 'theory of everything' possible? Do electrons exist?  Can neuroscience explain the mind?  Is it morally acceptable for psychologists to assist in a torture program? (It happened - at Guantanamo.) Who should own Henrietta Lacks's cancer cells?  If these don't look to you like scientific questions, you would be correct. There is no scientific procedure that could be used to answer them.  Why?  Because the sciences of nature are necessarily tied closely to empirical observation, and the aforementioned questions are about relations of ideas, not about observable things and events.  They are philosophical questions, raised and discussed in the domains of epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics.
It should be clear by now that philosophy and science are joined at the hip.  Science was born of philosophy and is grounded on philosophical assumptions.  However, the relationship is not symmetrical.  Philosophy can make of science an object of investigation and criticism, but the reverse is not true.  There is philosophy of science but no science of philosophy, nor can there be for the reasons I have stated.  Oh, sure, celebrity scientists often dismiss philosophy or object to one or another of its claims. but when they do so, they are speaking about ideas, not about nature, and that means they are speaking as philosophers.  Switching their hats like that is fine, but it would be nice if they knew what they are doing.
Given the close relationship between science and philosophy described above, I make the following bold claim:
Science is the empirical branch of philosophy.

Image result for branches of philosophy image

If this is right, then all the truths that science has discovered are also philosophical truths, and all the progress that science has made is also philosophical progress.  If you think this makes an incomprehensible mush of philosophy and science, you would be wrong. None of the above implies that there is no useful distinction to be made between philosophy and science.  There is, but it is not what I call the Strong Distinction, the one advocated by Smith, and it is certainly not the delusional Extreme Distinction between living science and dead philosophy made by philosophy-free scientists.   The proper distinction, I contend, is a Weak Distinction between conceptual philosophy and empirical philosophy ('science' for short).  The former uses conceptual methods to study ideas.3  The latter uses philosophical ideas and methods to study the natural world.  Even that distinction may not have made much sense to Aristotle, but it does now owing to the need for specialized disciplines in this increasingly complex world.  Science has earned the right to to pursue its important but narrow ends more or less independently, and philosophy, too, has a full-time job dealing with the many confusions created by the same complexity.  Among those, unfortunately, is the cluelessness of those who think "science rules."
Allowing only the Weak Distinction between philosophy and science shows us how science can be free to pursue its truth without denying the integrity of philosophy.  I have argued that the Strong Distinction is unwarranted: there is neither a historical nor a logical basis for making the cut between science/truth on the one hand and philosophy/options (only) on the other.  In both we find the pursuit of truths, albeit truths of a different kind.  To insist on the Strong Distinction is to commit philosophical suicide, leaving science with no concepts for understanding itself, no way to defend itself against its detractors, and no ethical monitor to keep it out of mischief.
I sent an email to Dr. Smith containing a shorter version of the above considerations.  His response two days later:  "Cool objection."
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Notes:
1  Apparently, after timely instruction from a philosophy student, Bill Nye has recently changed his mind.  You can read about his admirable about-face here.
  For my discussion of the topic, see my blogpost of September 17 of this year, "How free do you need to be?"  You can access it here.  You can read Prof. Smith's blogpost here.
3     Does conceptual philosophy discover truths all on its own?  You bet.  I have highlighted a few of them in this essay, e.g. that to deny truth in philosophy is to commit a performative contradiction.  For many others and for an account of how philosophy has made progress over the centuries and still does today, see Richard Carrier, "Is philosophy stupid?" here.