Monday, June 02, 2008

General Thoughts

On the way to pick B up at daycare today, I was listening to an interview on NPR's Speaking of Faith program. The interviewee is John Polkinghorne (now there's an English name for you) who's both a former chair of mathematical physics at Cambridge as well as an Anglican priest and theologian. Here's an excerpt from the interview about God and creating (the full interview can be found here)

Ms. Tippett: I think you also bring your theology and your science together interestingly in seeing that there's also something going on in the world, including human beings' interaction with nature at any given time, that there are sort of competing freedoms. I think that's a very interesting, complex idea.

Mr. Polkinghorne: Yeah. Well, I think we live in a world of true becoming. That's to say, I don't think that the future is fixed; I don't think God fixed it. I think God allows creatures to be themselves.

Ms. Tippett: Does God know it?

Mr. Polkinghorne: If we live in a world of true becoming so that we play our little parts in making the future — and I believe God's providence also plays a part in making the future, and also the laws of nature that God has ordained play a part in constraining the form of the future — if that's the sort of world in which we live, then I think actually even God doesn't know the future. And that's not an imperfection because the future is not yet there to be known. Now, that's a very controversial view, and not everybody, by any matter of means…

Ms. Tippett: We'll let you have it here.

Mr. Polkinghorne: …has agreed with me about that, but that's how it seems to me. And I think that, you see, there's been a very important development in theological thinking in the 20th century, and it's reflected in all sorts of quite different theologians, but they have this thing in common: They see the act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love and it is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from the Greek word, and so that God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. And that sort of world of becoming involves God's accepting limitations, and I believe, accepting limitations not knowing the future. That doesn't mean, of course, that God will be caught out by the future in the same way that you and I are. I mean, God can see how history is moving, so to speak, but God has to react to the way history moves. Now, that makes, to me, quite a lot of sense about the world.

Ms. Tippett: Well, and really that's a kind of theological way of describing evolution, in a sense, this becoming this creation that creates itself.

Mr. Polkinghorne: Yes. Absolutely.

Polkinghorne mentions that some of these ideas come through different theological schools, but this sounds to me like Alfred North Whitehead (developed into a rich theology by Charles Hartshorne) more than anything else.

A world of becoming.

This is precisely Whitehead's fundamental point. Whitehead was a mathematician who turned into a philosopher, writing his most famous philosophical works in the 30s. He saw two trends in Western philosophy, one of which comes from Herodotus and the other Parmenides. Herodotus famously said that one never stepped in the same river twice. Everything is constantly changing. Parmenides on the other hand believed in absolute Being with a capital B. Both trends can be seen in Plato and Aristotle. Plato had his Parminidean-like Forms, eternal unchanging Ideas and the rest of the world was made of transient impure imitations of the Forms. However, Plato also knew there were problems with this notion and, depending on how you intepret the dialog, set to work attacking his own idea, sorry Ideas, in a dialogue named... Parmenides.

Aristotle also had his Parmenidean strain of thought as well when he set some of the fundamental notions of physics that lasted until Einstein at least in the world of physics and until today with the general population. Namely, he thought of the world as having various Substances. This Substance is the fundamental stuff of which the world is made, and then Substances have properties. They can be blue, hard, round, smarmy, etc. Things and properties. A problem with such a notion is that once you take away all the properties, it's not clear what this Substance that's left is.

Whitehead's most basic thought, inspired by Einsteinian relativity as well as American pragmatist philosophy, was that these earlier thinkers had emphasized Being too much. Substances and Forms. Things which are supposed to be Eternal and Unchanging and somehow Perfect. But it becomes impossible to see how such eternal Forms interact with, well, with anything. If they change at all, they must not have been perfect, because now they are different. And you end up with this synchronized dance of eternal things which don't really interact or relate to one another. They just move such as to appear to interact. Instead of this world of perfected Being, the more accurate fundamental notion is Becoming. The most basic "things" are Processes. The world is made of verbs not nouns. Events and actions, not objects.

It is interesting that there appears to be no language which lacks verbs. English has nouns, verb, and adjectives, among other things. However, in many languages, there's no clear distinction between adjectives and verbs. You can use adjectives in the same places as verbs. In such a language, one can arguably say that there are only nouns and verbs of the main word classes. Almost every language does indeed have nouns and verbs, but there appear to be a very small number which don't distinguish nouns from verbs. One is Southern Salish, a Native American language spoken in British Colombia and the Pacific Northwest. It certainly appears that every word we would think of as a noun can act just like a verb. You can add tense to these "nouns", conjugate them, use them as predicates. So in English, "Bob is a chief," but in Southern Salish, "Bob chiefs" or "chiefed," if you get the idea. The point is that, while Salish might allow all words to act like verbs, there is no language where all words act like nouns.

Now, a small part of Whitehead's process philosophy concerned God whom he thought was a fundamental notion necessary to understand the world. Deriving in part from Plato (it's not clear how much this is actually part of the Hebrew Bible), God had traditionally been seen as the ultimate Form. For Aristotle, who of course wasn't Christian or Jewish, there was an Unmoved Mover -- the first Cause, the first source of all Motion -- but who was not moved. God is perfect and this had often been taken to mean as Eternal and Unchanging. Whitehead accepted the idea of eternal, in a certain sense, but rejected that God was unchanging. God in fact affects the world and is affected by it. Little puny things that we are, we change God because God interacts with us. We humans, God, plants, insects, all "things" are in motion, processes, in a continual state of becoming. The future is not yet written and the future of God is not yet written.

Much of Anglo-American philosophy of the 20th century believed itself to be sort of the evaluators of other more specific fields of knowledge. Philosophers would look at the results of physics and point out flaws and implications, or they would evaluate what words mean to clear things up, or they would propose arguments for and against some other belief like "it is wrong to kill" or "God is omnipotent." Evaluating arguments remains the fundamental skill that a philosophical education attempts to provide. Whitehead had a rather different notion of the purpose of philosophy. He stated that philosophy's goal was to "to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every item of our experience can be interpreted." Philosophers aim at the most general and the most basic notions, impossible to hit, but the target nonetheless.

One of Whitehead's general ideas was the the actual occasion, in his terms. The actual occasion is always in the present, the here and now; it in fact is the present. And it is here with this becoming, changing process of the present that creation occurs, where freedom is located. Perhaps oddly, for there to be creativity of this sort, the future cannot be known. It does not yet exist, it is being improvised, in Polkinghorne's language. True freedom requires this limitation. It requires God taking a risk. The present occasions, the true reality of the changing here and now, interact with other processes. In a certain sense, they hold up the most important aspects of their existence and other processes grab that aspect and make it part of themselves as they continue growing.

This is all very hard to grasp, isn't it? Part of the problem is me. It's hard for me, too, and so hard to explain. But the other part of the problem is that what makes Whitehead's ideas so fruitful is precisely that they are so general. As I quoted earlier, that's the whole point for him.

Language, and this is all me here and very vague, appears to work along similar lines. You have some sort of ongoing moment in the speech stream, the changing present, the part of speech that is in your attention at this moment. This present moment of language grew out of the past moments that are now gone forever, preserved only in the way that they make you understand the present. Simultaneously, the present moment of language holds up certain aspects as the key notions, the main predictors, of what will happen in the future.

There's a theory of pronouns (basically) called Centering Theory. In this theory, you have a group of "centers of attention" (usually, just the nouns, to keep it simple) which are held up as possible referents for the future. Let's say that the first sentence is "John kicked Jack." John and Jack would be held up as "forward-looking centers". Later moments in speech might relate to them; however, languages seem to rank their centers so that different forward-looking centers are more highly ranked than others. In English, all else being equal, we like our subjects to be the most highly ranked center going forward. Now, language keeps moving in time; i.e., people keep talking; and the next sentence arrives "He's angry." As "he" hits out ear, how do we know who it refers to? Sometimes the rest of the sentence gives us a clue, but in this case, it's deliberately vague. Well, turns out most English speakers will guess that "he" is John from before, the most highly ranked center of attention. When we mark that the present person, the "he", refers to the previous forward-looking center, John, then it's (the referent of he) called the backwards-looking Center, because it connect the second sentence with the former sentence.

It's not just past, present, and future. Instead, the ever-changing present takes the most important forward-looking aspects from the past and incorporates them to create its own future. God, finally connecting all this, gave a creation in which we are ever-changing bits of the present, using what is given to us, to create ourselves. We are eternal in that others, and even God, take what we offer and incorporate it into the present that is to come.


ChrisEldin said...

I love talking about religion in a philosophical sense, but I haven't been able to do that since college days.
That must've taken a long time to type. It must be important to you, I hope you have it backed up.

The Salish language part interested me also. I do that in my writing as a stylistic device. Cool tidbit!

(The butterfly video was very funny!!!)

pjd said...

I bet you didn't expect to write that bit at the end when you started out. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) I think George Bush and Dan Quayle were expert at living in the "now" of language. Each was darned sure about the word coming out of his mouth at any given moment, but I don't think anyone ever really knew what was next, and frequently those guys didn't seem to know what came before.

I really enjoyed reading this. I know nothing of philosophy, so seeing it summarized like this was fascinating. Although I am not a religious person in any sense of the word, I very much connect with this idea of God, that God is ever changing and that the world is in a constant state of becoming.

Another analogous system is the internet. The rules were put in place at the beginning, but each server on the network is free to be itself and act the way it will, within certain limitations. This is why technology and communication have exploded like crazy recently--because no one is in charge of the network, so therefore it enjoys the full power of organic evolution.

The only thing I don't like about this philosophy is that it eliminates the idea of time travel. If the future does not yet exist to be known, then beings like us can not travel into the future. Similarly, we would not be able to travel into the past because we would be coming from a theoretical future that would not yet exist. Yet I think that time may not be as linear as we perceive it, in the same way that the basic forces of physics are not linear.

There is just so much about our universe that we don't understand and can not yet even perceive. Whoa. Wait, I think I just fried some circuitry in my brain with infinity overload. I should never try to contemplate infinity without at least one cup of coffee.

But I wanted to say that this is a terrific post, and I learned some things from it. And it prompted new ideas for me. Thanks.

pacatrue said...

I think the two of you get Blogger awards for reading all the way to the end.

McKoala said...

I'm coming back tomorrow to read properly, but in the meantime, got to throw in that I know JP's son. Heh, heh, I know some stories...

Robin S. said...

It's not just past, present, and future. Instead, the ever-changing present takes the most important forward-looking aspects from the past and incorporates them to create its own future.

This is beautifully put - and in its purest, most basic sense, this is simply the state of human consciousness, from archetypal and preconscious thought, to the way the human mind works. Don't think this is as religious as it is insightful.

I do thoroughly enjoy the philosophy of religion- studied it in college- but I have to tell you, I don't believe in organized religion of any faith.