Saturday, March 18, 2006

After quantum theology

Earlier today, I sent a letter to Dennis Overbye, New York Times, relating to his response to questions about an article by him earlier this week, "Far Out, Man. But Is It Quantum Physics?".

Subject: After quantum theology

Dear Mr. Overbye,

What fun your whole response-to-questions article is! I imagine you and your editor sharing a big tongue-in-cheek by providing that whole discourse by Ed Reno, which you tacitly covered in your comments prior to the overt response to questions.

Most interesting, though, is the frame: that the NY Times is giving its readers a taste of real philosophical controversy—America's own Die Zeit (though I don't read German anymore). I hope that the Times will do more of this kind of deep controversy. You're probably the Times' best-placed advocate for that.

Actually, the Times does a lot of it, and one could gather the best of that together to render a portrait of Being In America now, combining the "metaphysical" qualms associated with Intelligent Design, when embryonic life becomes human, the conflict of Gods in the "clash of civilization," silence of the SETI results thus far, and other persistent anxieties (and fears).

You know, academic philosophy has made progress; there are settled kinds of issues. But it never does much for the public, as a new generation somewhat fatefully recapitulates old issues. This kind of thing gives developmental psychologists their solidarity with philosophy instructors, and both, perhaps, with evolutionary psychologists. I like to claim that the historical Question of Being (culminating in Heidegger) has been replaced by questions of evolution (taken to heart): Given that, as philosopher John Searle nicely puts it, "the mind is what the brain does" (analogously as digestion is what the stomach "does"), the explanatory challenge of self-understanding—as a species project—remains more daunting than ever, while our fledgling astrobiology increasingly entails that surprises beyond human imagination await (after Ray Kurzweil's "Singularity is near" is kept from overtaking us). [By the way, it's very useful to distinguish reductionism from substitutionism: The prospect that mental events are incalculably "reducible" to biological events doesn't entail hoping to substitute biological events for mental events in explanatory schema. Reductionism doesn't require claiming that biology can disappear into physics, nor that psychology can disappear into neurobiology. Reductionism is usually confused with substitutionism; this is a point made by the editors of Essays in Social Neuroscience, John T. Cacioppo and Gary G. Bernston, MIT 2004, ch. 9: "Multilevel Analyses and Reductionism: Why Social Psychologists Should Care about Neuroscience and Vice Versa."]

I, for one, never really worry in light of the evident fate of the universe (that I enjoyed burlesquing for you a while back ), as the fact that one will die should have no bearing on the meaning of being alive. Nothing we know implies any less reason for getting out of bed each morning.

But being both scientifically literate and in love with living is an elusive prospect for most of humanity. We need our philosophers, and we need our leading journals of the times to give our media generally the cultural leadership that is often so desperately needed.

Cause us to give time to thinking and reading and learning together rather than consuming and watching and causing people to, as David Brooks put it yesterday on the PBS News Hour, "choose the reality that flatters themselves." [Actually, I sent David an email about that earlier today:


You said Friday, 3/17, on The News Hour that, in sum, "people choose the reality that flatters themselves." So, how do you avoid that? I don't mean this as a gotcha or rhetorical question. How do you avoid that? How does one gain confidence about validity claims? Are you saying, in general, that people are lazy about their views and one just has to be vigilant? But it's probably the case that no one believes that they're lazy about their views. So, how does one know that one's "reality" is reasonably valid? Wouldn't your claim entail that few are persuaded by commentary, let alone careful argument, so what's the point of what you do? I'd like to see a column from you that pursues this in depth, perhaps as the issue of promoting critical citizenship. ]

I would like to see you, David, and Tom Friedman running the OpEd domain of the Times!

Gary Davis