A New Enlightenment?
I have known Jordan Gruber for twelve or more years, as I recall, and he has invited me to contribute to the new Enlightenment dot com. This is brave of him to say the least.
What brings us together, I think, is a common interest in understanding the nature of the world and our place in it. This desire on our part travels with a tolerance on both our parts for the fact that we often appear to speak about the world in very different terms. I bring what most people will call “a scientific perspective.” More exactly, my perspective is that of the existentialist and positivist; that is, I am concerned with the nature of existence and hold that science may be universally applied.
We are seekers on our own journey, certainly, but Jordan and I both have a practical side. I interpret Jordan’s practical side to be about discernment. He seeks here to provide a resource that enables individuals to discern ideas. Not just “good” ideas from “bad” ideas, not just “true” ideas from “false,” but also ideas that essentially speak of the same thing but may be embodied in a way that they “may work” for one person but not for another. I have to say that I share that concern but lack the passion for it that Jordan has.
My practical concerns tend to deal with what the world is and how we may speak of it. In particular, I am concerned with the role that experience plays in nature, what we may achieve and what we may become if we can develop the fullest understanding of it. At one level I have very particular engineering problems in mind. These are high-technology problems that have to do with the reproduction and use of “living behavior.” These behaviors include, in particular, recognition, the making of decisions across large-scale biophysical structure, and the general effectiveness of sense and response. I also have problems in medicine in mind. It seems to me impossible for medicine, and more generally biophysics, to make progress without the fullest account of our manifest experience and the role that it plays in the operation of organisms such as you and I.
I also have practical concerns that, as a father and a citizen of the world, are personal.
I am concerned with the predicament of our species. And here I am not speaking about faddish concerns of one cause or another. For me it seems futile to save the whales or to be concerned with the environment without first addressing this larger issue. This is not to say that “jonny-on-the-spot” should not act in these causes, he certainly should. But to make progress as a species, for individual causes to become at all relevant, a broader “change of heart” is required. Otherwise all individual causes are lost.
At the root of it, I suspect this concern with the predicament of our species is where Jordan and I also have common ground.
Jordan, I know, is concerned that there are a great many public peddlers of “Enlightenment” and he has sought from the beginning to provide a safe environment where individuals can find a diverse and objective account of these ideas and practices so that they may better discern what may work for them.
Like most of my generation I have traveled the journey of personal inquiry myself. In the end that road led me to science and mathematics. But as a younger man I gave serious consideration to living my life as a Catholic priest and for much of my life called myself “Taoist.” I have great affection for the teachings of Lao Tzu and admire the work of fellow Englishman Alan Watts. But I have now come to look forward and not back.
“Wisdom is in our future, I believe, and not in our past.”
Wisdom is in our future, I believe, and not in our past. That wisdom is to be found in new discovery and the evolution of pure mathematics and the physical sciences – that must come to take the subject of experience more seriously than it has to date. For us in the modern West, the first steps toward that future were taken in the European Enlightenment and a period of time in America, the nineteenth century, and a place, in and around the founding of Harvard University, that I have come to call the “American Enlightenment.”
I will be speaking at Stanford University on the latter narrative in January. It is an interesting story, for while existentialists and positivists in Europe were declaring “God is dead,” this group of similarly motivated American intellectuals sought the scientific re-conception of “God.” And this, it seems to me, is a more pragmatic approach to the problem. Admittedly, in modern terms it is a sort of atheism, without the “a.” It recognizes the common cause of theology and science, to understand the world and our place in it. As one may expect, this was not a very popular point of view in America at the time. I believe it was suppressed by conservative social forces at the turn of the twentieth century. None-the-less, this group of individuals had a profound effect upon all American thinkers that followed.
Let me be clear. When I speak of theology here, I do not speak of religion. I speak of the general inquiry into the nature and essence of the world. Science and theology have this much in common. For me a religion is simply a set of ideas such that we cannot look upon the world without consideration of them. In this sense then, science is my religion.
I will not have much time to contribute here until I have finished my forthcoming book “On The Origin Of Experience : The Shaping Of Sense And The Complex World.” And it isn’t clear to me that my contribution will either be appreciated or make a difference. But I am happy to contribute what I may to support Jordan in his goals.