A Theistic Religious Naturalism: Why I – rather naturally – Have No Metaphysic

My adolescent fascinations and undergraduate & graduate preoccupations were rather narrowly focused on the behavioral sciences. And not just at the macro-levels of ethology, ecology & comparative psychology, but at the nuts & bolts level of brain biochemistry.

One year, in high school, I advanced to and participated in the International Science & Engineering Fair, having constructed a rather colossal, rube-goldbergian perfusion apparatus, designed to keep rat livers alive, in vitro, while conducting biochemical experiments on them.

That same year, I had also worked with a friend on memory transfer experiments. She had already accomplished primitive memory transfers between classically conditioned & naïve recipient planaria (flatworms), so, I suggested we take that behavioral investigation to another phylogenetic level. You see, in what were to me the Disney-like stacks of the dark aisles of the LSU library, I had previously encountered the wondrous mysterium fascinans of mammalian memory transfer research.

So, we acquired the requisite hamsters, trained some in mazes, extracted their brain RNA and injected it into their untrained siblings. A half-century later, when I pass that little pine grove where we buried them all, I rather wistfully recall their sacrifice, less sure now than then whether it was truly for the sake of science.

Let’s just leave it at that.

In college, hyper-motivated to get out of the classroom and back into the boundless tremendum of those library stacks and the endless fascinans of the laboratory, I hardly knew where to focus degree-wise. No particular curriculum fully accommodated my feverish interest in being able to better account for animal and human behaviors, so to speak, reductively. I therefore accelerated my graduate school entrance by craftily employing a general studies degree program. Such programs “generally” foster a rather lax approach that allows one to optimally navigate past difficult subject matters, but I exploited its flexibility to pull off the informal equivalent of a triple major with roughly 30+ hours each in chemistry and psychology coupled with even more coursework in zoology, much of that in independent research. So, it was thereby that I had thus ended up spending more than three years of undergraduate & graduate work in a neuroendocrinology lab that had previously, for example, figured out certain of the physiological mechanisms of bird migration. Oversimplifying things, we could get these critters to fly north versus south with specifically timed hormonal injections!

It was also thereby that I had thus advanced my education with a veritable dearth of arts and humanities coursework.

“Advanced my education,” of course, if employed as a true term of art, would not really apply to one who, fifty years hence, has yet to take a single philosophy or theology course, although I did take a single course in literature, another perhaps in history, for what that’s worth.

No, for me, any employment of that phrase more so resembles the meaning behind the Bonnie & Clyde lyric, “advanced their reputation and made their graduation into the banking business.” Turns out, I retired from banking, having served on various venues as chairman, president & chief executive officer. I won’t suffer you that digression even though it would have deep spiritual implications, more than tangential to … what’s our topic? … oh, yeah, metaphysics.

I suffered neither existential angst about nor epistemic incongruities from my heavily reductionist behavioral bent. I’ll reveal more below why that inclination didn’t become reductionistic.

Throughout all of my coursework and research, especially when engaging the most highly speculative theoretical aspects of each scientific discipline that I had studied, I rather subconsciously and implicitly cultivated what I’ve now come to appreciate as a healthy aporetic sense. I became very aware that, in most every discipline, empirical research would inevitably be encountered by descriptive aporia, which, in turn, developed into various interpretive schools, each subscribing to an approach that variously over- and/or under- emphasized distinct aspects of phenomena, whether focused on specific entities, in and of themselves, or on their properties, or on their relations, inner or outer.

By distinct, I’d later come to appreciate, I mean to suggest that they were aspiring to develop speculative conceptions that make a practical difference.

The practical differences implied by various theoretical conceptions can take a long time in coming, empirically. I began to notice this pattern in college.

In physics, I saw how, while empirical quantum mechanics was indisputable, different schools of quantum interpretation proliferated. In cosmology, different cosmogonal models competed. In biology, different accounts of life’s origins grappled with the inexplicable leap from physics and chemistry to biology. In cognitive psychology, different philosophies of mind modeled the origins of animal sentience. In anthropology, semioticians devised conceptual distinctions in explanatory attempts to understand how symbolic language could arise from mere icons and indexes, taking us beyond a mere sentience to a robust sapience.

I never bothered to invest very much in one or the other interpretation. I was content, rather, to try to more so understand what their particular questions were ABOUT, less so what their proposed answers, sometimes pretentiously, suggested. That early almost pre-reflective aporetic sense later evolved into more sophisticated intuitions, inchoate early on to be sure, but, later articulated in such heuristics as Gödel’s theorems, Agrippa’s trilemma, Peter Suber’s “problems of beginning” and other safeguards against epistemic hubris.

I had implicitly rejected any tidy epistemic compartmentalizations of supposedly non-overlapping magisteria and approached reality with a single, fallibilist epistemology. That’s to say that, to me, epistemology is epistemology is epistemology.

There are no such things as strictly metaphysical or scientific epistemologies. My youthful reductive tendencies have not been shaken, but neither have they devolved into any unmitigated positivisms or vulgar pragmatisms.

None of this is to deny that certain ontologies, quantum interpretations, cosmogonal models, biogenetic theories, philosophies of mind or language origin anthropologies wouldn’t have even profound implications, existentially, regarding, for example, free will. Those interpretations do introduce conceptual distinctions that can have profound practical implications. I just never got terribly engaged by arguments for or against such as solipsism or free will, much less first principles. Common sense abductions, reductio ad absurdums and methodological stipulations remain – not only necessary, but – sufficient for those types of realities without the further “benefit” of tautological deductions, formal proofs or metaphysical excursions.

I thus abide not only reality’s metaphysical gaps and inter-theoretic aporia, but – marvel at the possibilities regarding its perimeters, its initial, boundary & limit conditions, its axiomatic contours as defended by such epistemic bulwarks as, again, Gödel-like implications, Agrippa’s trilemma and Suber’s “problems of beginning.” I do very much appreciate that not all tautologies regarding same are equally taut vis a vis embracing epistemic virtue and avoiding epistemic vice. But even the best interpretations of our highly speculative theoretical sciences have not yet yielded a normalization of gravity and quantum mechanics, a biopoietic account of life origins, a sentiopoietic account of qualia, a sapiopoietic account of symbolic language. So, I content myself by simply bookmarking these diverse aporia in terms of their ABOUTNESS that I can better inventory the nature of the questions they are asking in their methodological probes without overinvesting in the nature of the answers they pretend to proffer with their metaphysical conclusions. Such conclusions are too often not merely embedded in the premises and presuppositions of such metaphysical argumentation but in their very definitions.

The aboutnesses most often under consideration include (using some personal, idiosyncratic neologisms) the following aporia:

1) veldo-poietic regarding field origins that appear teleo-potent or end-unbounded;

2) cosmo-poietic regarding physical realities that appear teleo-matic or end-stated;

3) bio-poietic regarding life origins that appear teleo-nomic or end-directed;

4) sentio-poietic regarding sentience origins that appear teleo-qualic or end-purposed; and

5) sapio-poietic regarding language origins that appear robustly teleo-logic or end-intended.

In terms of aboutness, different interpretations at each emergent level employ metaphorical languages that are largely incommunicative in the other levels. This is to recognize, for example, that, if we reconciled quantum mechanics with gravity today, we’d be no closer, tomorrow, to delivering an adequate account of biogenesis, much less a philosophy of mind with a sufficient explanatory adequacy, much much less solve the riddles of indeterminacy that inhere in any account of free will.

Above, I referenced entities, properties and their inner & outer relations. In my encounters with different accounts of reality’s various emergent levels of aboutness, I noticed that, whichever chosen root metaphor, whether of substances, relations, processes, experiences or otherwise, each account variously dealt with those phenomenal categories as well as addressed the temporality of past, present & future, or possibilities, actualities, probabilities & necessities. Transcending the various root metaphors were vague conceptions like act & potency, which seemed to me like helpful placeholders for any ontology.

Because my passion had always been focused on the epistemic reduction of behavior, I was especially drawn to semiotic emergentist accounts that addressed human language origins. It was in my reading regarding same that I encountered for the first time, in a meaningful way, how indispensable were Aristotelian conceptions of formal & final causes, in addition to such as efficient, material, instrumental, exemplary & imaginal causes.

Nothing advanced my grasp of such teleodynamics more than my corresponding- friendship with & generous tutelage by Ursula Goodenough, who’s long collaborated with her good friend Terrence Deacon regarding all things biologically emergent for decades. Introduced by a mutual friend, Michael Cavanaugh, I recognized in their work the very same Peircean themes I had first grappled with when reading the Peircean philosophy & anthropology of an old (five decade) acquaintence & fellow yat (New Orleans native) Don Gelpi. *** see note below

So, there I was, outfitted with a triadic heuristic that approached vague phenomena, from the quantum through the mental, not with any metaphysic or root metaphor, but using placeholders like entities, properties & relations; possibilities, actualities & probabilities; past, present & future; act & potency; being, reality & existence; in/determined & in/determinable; and the full suite of Aristotelian causes, which was proving to be a useful epistemic heuristic for folks of otherwise diverse ontological persuasions, including nonreductive physicalists.

I should say this, however, as an emergentist, I do not subscribe to such distinctions as others often draw between strong & weak emergence, weak & strong supervenience. (I travel light, sans metaphysic & sans supervenience.) Thus it was that my early biological interests had begun to intersect philosophy of mind (e.g. Deacon versus Dennett & Dawkins) and Aristotelian emergentist accounts made for a great heuristic. So, I only ever employed such heuristics, as I mentioned above, to bookmark aporia, different types of aboutness, inventory the relevant questions & map concepts across competing interpretations. I otherwise remained and remain a metaphysical agnostic, a realist, to be sure, but with no interest in inhabiting any given system. I suppose you could say that I’m putting off any serious metaphysical excitement and over-the-top ontological enthusiasm for any given account of nature’s causal joints until I see how the ontology that underwrites same has normalized gravity & quantum mechanics, or proved empirically fruitful with its biogenetic stance or philosophy of mind deliverances.

So, my modest emergentist heuristic doesn’t really do much, propositionally & speculatively, but dispositionally it has had much transformative impetus for the ways I approach all communal, aesthetic, ethical & liberative human realities & concerns.

Any task of musing about reality’s perimeters can be done with a Peircean-like abduction of the Ens Necessarium in a single afternoon’s parlor sitting, not explicitly employing Peirce, mind you, just competently engaging one’s common sense. We will typically bring three musements into play, whether inchoately or reflectively:

1) a mereological intuition regarding the relations between reality’s parts & wholes;

2) a metaphysical intuition reflecting some particular root metaphor for reality’s entities & their properties; and

3) an epistemic intuition (usually involving some version of the principle of sufficient reason) as to whether, regarding reality’s primitives & axioms, those are merely brute or clearly fruit about which reality, in principle or not, remains mute.

My own intuition suggests that, whichever stances one presupposes, mereologically, metaphysically or epistemically, will lead to an abduction of some Ens Necessarium, propositionally. Various quidditative attributes then get intuitively assigned, which can (presupposing an epistemic virtue not all attain) lead to competing equiplausible interpretations of reality writ large, which then get adjudicated mostly dispositionally by- not a vulgar, but – a semiotic realist pragmatism, wherein a plurality of defensible stances (metaphysical, even moral) can reasonably, hopefully peacably, coexist due to – not any relativism, emotivism or voluntarism, but – a metaphysical fallibilism. My heuristic thus only provides me some conceptual placeholders to map whatever it seems to me to be that competing stances happen to be talking about in terms of aboutness.

In other words, I’m rather content to say that something like Scotus’ formal distinction appears at stake, here; something like Thomas’ analogy of being, there; something like Peirce’s distinctions between Being, Reality & existence, here.

And I want to affirm, over against any silly ignosticism, that such talk is meaningful, existentially & transformatively, even while insisting it has serious limits, speculatively.

I do rather believe that serious formal argumentation can take place, ontologically & modally, even syllogistically, as long as one guarantees the conceptual compatibility of one’s quidditative Ens Necessarium-conceptions employing only apophatic predications. I think one can see, however, how that type of argumentation crosses only a very limited epistemic distance, rationally?

What about positive conceptions? Can they similarly be meaningful?

Well, semantically & univocally, I believe so. But with the caveat that, for dang sure, absent a robust root metaphor that travels up & down the great chain of being gifting us robustly empirical deliverances regarding our quotidian, finite, determinate & temporal realities, why in the world, much less out of this world, would we over-invest in their speculative conclusions regarding ethereal, infinite, indeterminate & eternal realities? The same epistemic critique applies to any ontological analogy or semantical univocity of being. Such metaphors will collapse at pretty much the same velocity as they cascade. Not only that, even within a given metaphysic, manifold interpretations can compete. Further complicating translation efforts, the metaphysical idioms under consideration may be appropriated within any given culture more so implicitly and inchoately, less so explicitly and reflectively, all of this coming into play even in the etymological roots of each language’s concepts. Why even expect our metaphysics to overcome the aporia of reality’s perimeters before we’ve even see what Scotism & Thomism, Whitehead & Hartshorne, or, for that matter, Aristotle or Plato, have done with gravity & quantum mechanics or biogenesis?

When, at last, I did consciously engage other philosophies of science, I had come from the world of the highly speculative, theoretical sciences, where I had learned of the time-honored efficacies of the long-banished Aristotelian formal & final causations and had become aware of the epistemic cul de sacs of logical positivisms & radical empiricisms. I had also learned of the tremendous heuristic value of the very vague categories of act & potency, determinacies & indeterminacies, vagueness & generality. I came to it all already bearing the gift of my epistemic heuristic and discovered that, in the many different types of philosophy of science discourse, some of the vary same aboutnesses and causations and phenomenological categories were in play! However, I also brought with me the same degree of epistemic humility that inhered in a fallibilist approach. But I had, still have, little interest in becoming a Scotist or Whiteheadian. And my introduction to Thomism was Maritain’s existential approach because it was the vehicle with which I first delved into quantum interpretations. Thereafter, I soon learned there were Aristotelian, Transcendental, Analytic, Phenomenological, Process, Neo-Scholastic and Semiotic schools of Thomism, among others. I haven’t inhabited any of those either. Neither do I buy into Peirce’s metaphysical musings, only finding his phenomenological categories to be great conceptual placeholders.

I remain, therefore, for the most part, a thoroughgoing metaphysical agnostic.

Don’t get me wrong, though.

I do applaud those who engage fully any given school with its onto-logical enterprises, or even regarding certain natural law-like de-ontologies.

I only ever insist, however, that …

any given metaphysic not be delivered with a confidence level that outruns its heuristic value in physics …

that our deontologies should be delivered at least as modestly as our ontologies are tentative …

that the normative impetus imparted to any epistemic stance be commensurate with the evidentiary standards it’s already met.

Many remain in search of a metaphysic?

So do I.

*** Note: Emergentism, as an umbrella concept, refers to a rather wide variety of evolutionary approaches, both reductive & nonreductive as well as a radical emergentism, which doesn’t invoke supervenience. What I describe above specifies none of those, as I’m agnostic regarding whether or not a particular supervenience obtains for all teloi & entropies, at least, not in the sense we could a priori specify whether the emergence of any given aboutness refers to an epistemic and/or ontic reality and/or to what extent, and, also, not in a manner that clearly specifies the precise nature of any corresponding subvenient realities.

So, I’m articulating generic or plain vanilla emergentism. What’s definitely at stake is the indispensable & indisputable role of evolutionary processes. Therefore, even those who don’t invoke an explicitly emergentist idiom may fall under my generic description, for example, Dawkins & Dennett on the reductionist end of the spectrum and Jack Haught on the radical end. Clustered with the nonreductionists who’d invoke supervenience would be folks like Nancey Murphy & Joe Bracken, the latter who employs a field process metaphor.

I would interpret Peirce as sympathetic to that supervenient stance but as rigorously interested in avoiding both the essentialism of Aristotelian substance approaches & the nominalism that can afflict Whiteheadian process approaches. Deacon & Goodenough’s something more (or else) from nothing but approach, if I grasp it correctly, adheres to that Peircean rigor & thereby threads the essentialism-nominalism needle, or, more accurately, rejects the dyadic subject-object paradigm that gives rise to those “solutions.” Essentialism is rejected because it’s not dynamical. Nominalism is avoided as nature’s regularities play a real role as generalities, like laws, patterns & habits, irreducibly & triadically, mediate all interactivity between & among all entities, properties & relations.

Deacon’s concept, absentials, evokes for me the key Aristotelian insight of potency. The teloi involved rather precisely point to creaturely deficiencies or privations or biological imperatives. This is to recognize, in my take, that, beyond a mere supervenience, where mereological relationships exhibit causal efficacies, contextual relationships matter (pun intended, i.e. are informationally embodied). However, beyond generic Aristotelian conceptions of telos vis a vis formal (act) & final (potency) causes, which are way too general to add heuristic value, much less any new information, to one’s system, a Peircean emergentism recognizes novelty in – not only entities, properties & relations, but – reality’s regularities. Any talk of formal & final causes or of entropy up & down the great chain of being will inescapably invoke teloi & entropies that are merely analogous & clearly emergent. Of all the emergentist perspectives, the Peircean-like leanings of Deacon & Goodenough seem the best nuanced.

I can abide most all of the nonreductive & radical emergentist approaches. I just haven’t had the time or knowledge to invest in one or the other. If I ever do, it will likely combine Bracken’s field concept & the Deacon-Goodenough triadicity. Theologically, it would eschew any classical creatio ex nihilo for something closer to Catherine Keller’s creatio ex profundis. (Preliminarily, I have referred to this project as a polydoxic, tehomic pan-SEMIO-entheism).

In my view, there can be no question, then, that questions are left begging, explanatory adequacy is left lacking, regarding the precise nature of any putative supervenience’s subvenient substrates. There are sufficient regularities to render reality almost infinitely intelligible, enough discontinuities to keep it eminently incomprehensible (not necessarily permanently occulted in principle, but, intractably so in practice). It thus remains problematic as to how & when regularities will connote a reality as regulated and/or as a regulator, which in/determinacies connote a transient methodological in/determinability and/or an ontological in/determinedness, whether an apparent chaos reveals clear chance in nature or mere epistemic distancing & axiological privations.

And where up & down the great chain of being do such regularities introduce exactly what kind of chance or arbitrariness? It seems clear that, whatever the nature of their extrinsic constraints (chance vs necessity, chaos vs order, paradox vs pattern, random vs systematic), semiotic agents, by perpetuating, maintaining & replicating their own dynamical constraints (as ordered toward closing epistemic distances & overcoming ontic privations), can leverage (direct, purpose or intend, respectively, teleo -nomically, -qualically or -logically) even arbitrary signs, autopoietically, in life-giving & relationship-enhancing ways that foster an integral communal flourishing. Partly regulated & determined, such agents are obviously regulators that, themselves, determine outcomes.

Regarding the symbolic species, how much freedom of agency such personal entities-in-process can dynamically engage, ironically & paradoxically, derives from how successful they are at being true to their self-constraining imperatives, biologically & socially, via disciplines we might call the practice of auto-poietic authenticity. Hence the saliency of practices of all great as well as indigenous traditions, whether asceticisms & disciplines, normatively, or rituals & celebrations, evaluatively.

Finally, it’s my intention hereinabove, to defend a radically pluralistic openness to all manner of pluralisms – metaphysical, cultural, religious, moral, ethical & anthropological – speculatively speaking (not via relativism & nihilism but fallibilism & probabilism). It’s my contention that humankind, largely, otherwise remains sufficiently similarly situated, ecologically & ethologically, to substantively share enough in the way of the evaluatively dispositional to be able to abstract from same a normatively propositional consensus, as reflected in such general precepts as were, for example, articulated in the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. These precepts remain both necessary & sufficient to underwrite the most salient aspects of public order, public peace, public justice & public morality. And, although more problematical, they lend themselves to reasoned discourse regarding the formulation of specific concrete norms to guide humankind in its quest for bioethical, ecological, economic & other important value-realizations.

My radically pluralistic outlook regarding plausibilistic (not probabilistic) speculative stances, and sufficiently consensual approach regarding public norms, is deeply sympathetic to the principles of free exercise & nonestablishment regarding all such matters of conscience, both the plausibilist speculative & creedal matters and regarding probabilist practical & moral realities. No conscience should be unnecessarily or unduly burdened by public law unless there is a morally defensible (sufficiently consensual) compelling government interest spelled out in a generally applicable law that so burdens any consciences in the least restrictive manner practicable.

Essentially, this hereinabove has all amounted to a plaintive appeal by me to humankind:

Why can’t we all just get along?

Why not impute – not the most cynical, but – the most charitable interpretation conceivable to others’ motives, properly imagining that they probably share our most urgent public values & insistent human concerns & only likely differ, prudentially, regarding the best way to go about enjoying value-realizations & avoiding value-frustrations?

Why shouldn’t all foresake the militant proselytizing – not just within & among creeds, ecumenically & interreligiously, but – including those who’d annihilate supernaturalism or de-nihil-ate philosophical naturalism?

Have we learned nothing from the logical positivists, radical empiricists & metaphysical ignostics, who, naively wielding Occam’s Razor as if it were a self-evident first principle, in their hege-monist-ic anxiety to annihilate supernaturalism, would collaterally epistemically extinguish the illuminative interpretive heuristics of our theoretical sciences? That is just so mid-20th Century!

And what’s with those who, upon encountering any growth in cultural diversities or trend in globalist harmonies, advocate isolationistic retreats or nationalistic advances? Why do they tend to be the very same people who, so reflexively, recoil from any degree of pluralism – metaphysical, religious, aesthetical, ethical, etc – spooked, as they always facilely suggest, by the twin spectres of relativism & nihilism, never once imagining that such diversities & harmonies might otherwise arise from the hermeneutically fertile grounds of epistemic humility, metaphysical fallibilism & moral probabilism? These tend to be the same folks who, while decrying any move from a methodological to a philosophical naturalism as illicit, turn around and treat any methodological stipulation to a principle of sufficient reason as if it were some metaphysical verity.

Enough, then, with the tired age-old attempts to, sometimes comedically but always cynically, craftily narrow all conceptions of epistemic virtue & broaden those of epistemic vice in such a way as to philosophically shoehorn only one’s own ontological footings, while denying others their normative fitness. Inevitably, such attempts will cripple our triadically inferential common sense, itself, which already labors under necessary & sufficient fallibilist rubrics of alternating conjecture & criticism as our practical reasonings navigate under speculative uncertainties. Any sufficiency of evidence, both of quantum & quality, vis a vis normative justifications, has never been an all or nothing – either/or reality, but, in a long-established & time-honored way, has common sensically been proportioned by evidentiary standards, whereby one’s epistemic rights get suitably extended or abridged by a rubric which norms: Show me your evidence and I’ll tell you what you can justifiably do with it.

Those, who have imagined that such norms could be tweaked to arrogate all epistemic virtue to themselves & attribute all vice to others, are not as bright as they suspect, for such philosophical shoehorning has always inevitably inferentially hobbled – not only our highly speculative theoretic sciences, but – common sense, itself. Such hermeneutical cobblings render such interpretive footings susceptible to a self-subverting parody, as they inescapably step forward into the epistemic quicksands of naive realisms or radical skepticisms. Enough already!

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