Saturday, February 9, 2013

"Evolution's Purpose" by Steve McIntosh; Commentary and Review

(By Guest Writer - Michel Weatherall)

I think a point that is made in this book should be pronounced early on; That a certain 'branch' of science - mechanistic materialism - be identified as a 'belief' is important.
"In a world that was once dominated by traditional consciousness and state-sponsored religious political authority, mechanistic materialism served as the protective shell out of which the "chick" of science could be born. But now the chick is hatched and science has become the new politically empowered authority on the truth. And this has resulted in the accompanying metaphysics of scientism becoming a new kind of state-sponsored belief system, used by materialists as a quasi-religious power base in academia and the mainstream media.   
"Robert Wesson observes: "Darwinism became the banner for those who would overthrow what they saw as an irrational, superstitious view of human origins... The theory of evolution became the focus of the confrontation of science and religion" 
"However, as a result of their ongoing battle with Christian fundamentalists, ironically, many scholars of evolution have themselves become "Darwinian fundamentalists." pgs 36-37
A point successfully made was the analogy of humanity's search for truth being like a 3-legged stool. Its legs being Science, Philosophy, and Spirituality (Religion). The simple fact that there are 'areas' where science cannot (and should not) function, is important.
"...this is especially important within the subject of evolution, where science and philosophy are often intertwined. While the empirical facts of evolutionary science cannot stand alone without some kind of philosophical frame, we do not have to accept materialism as the only philosophy compatible with these facts." pg. 144
An equally important point is that Science's materialism (neo-Darwinism) is based upon some sort of metaphysics - Belief.
"The faith that all things can be attributed to analyzable material causation is, in the end, only a faith like more candid faiths. The contention that reality consists of only material particles and their modes of interaction is not even a clear-cut theory... But are the laws of nature not real? Are mathematical theorems real? Are patterns real? Are thought and consciousness? It is paradoxical to deny their essentially  for science could not exist without them." pgs. 36-37
To return to the analogy of the three-legged stool, a methodology of a mechanistic materialism science only is a defective system with great shortcomings.

What is this stool's third leg, Spirituality?
"What is "spirit"? Well, to define something is to objectify it, and whatever spirit is, it is certainly not an object. But even though it cannot be adequately defined, this does not mean that spirit is obscure, indefinite, or wholly subjective." pg. 215

In the first half of this book Steve McIntosh tends to seemingly ramble on numerous tangents to prove some sort of point he feels necessary. Making an ambiguous statement peppered with large words; not so much to communicate simply his abstract ideas better, but seemingly to appear more academic. These statements are near without fail followed by another sentence beginning with "In others words..." only to make another ambiguous statement, again peppered with more unhelpful large words.

This author's writing style  made this entire book a brutally difficult read. What this book needs is a healthy dose of plain - simple - language.

It is possible that this book's target audience is a highly educated and academic group of professors and doctorates. Maybe the book is simply over my head. I'm not sure who exactly this book's target audience is meant to be.

What I do like about the premise of "Evolution's Purpose" is that not only does he identify the various forms of Evolution (it's not all Darwinism), more importantly, he believes they are all one in the same process.
Big Bang - Cosmological Evolution - Chemical Evolution - Biological Evolution - Pychosocial Evolution (Cultural Evolution).

He introduces Emergence Theory to (briefly) explain certain leaps and bounds in the Evolutionary process. (ie like how a primordial chemical soup could produce life. Like when hydrogen and oxygen are correctly combined [water] a gestalt-like feature emerges: surface tension) as opposed to Intelligent Design's Irreducible Complexity. However, like so many interesting ideas and topics presented in this book, I felt Emergence Theory wasn't expanded upon enough.

He seems to become distracted and fragmented however as he progresses into Pychosocial Evolution.
He speaks of Evolution from the Physiosphere to a Biosphere, to eventually a Noosphere. I can only assume by the Noosphere he means the evolution of culture.

Within this cultural evolution he repeatedly refers to stages or worldviews within.
Pre-traditional, Traditional, Modern, Postmodern, and what he predicts will be the new Evolutionary Worldview, seeing these as a Hagel-like progression of Thesis + Antithesis = Synthesis.

In some sort of confused way he seems to link psychosocial evolution, this Noosphere, numerous syntheses, and cultural worldviews by the values of Truth and Beauty, and ultimately, Goodness. Although I believe he is right, with all of his pages of word weaving and mental  meanderings, I don't believe he successfully makes his point. I don't think the reader should be forced to decipher the author's ideas, where it is the author's job to successfully and clearly communicate his own concepts and ideas. He seems to rely on complicated repetition.


It isn't until the second half of the book do we begin to see where he is going with his ideas.

An interesting and important point is that Purpose is not synonymous with following a Plan or blueprint, or Preplanned - which would necessarily invoke Intelligent Design.
"...the very fact of the instrumental use proves the purpose - as life depends on and used matter, matter becomes endowed with a new form of purpose, and as our human minds depend on and use our animal bodies, we likewise add purpose to life." pg. 156
 This is explained in much better detail with introduction and use of "holonic ecology", or the theory of holons, which basically creates a symbiotic relationship between their instrumental value and their intrinsic value.

In the final quarter of the book he crosses over from the subject of Philosophy into the realm of Spirituality and theology, even being so brave as to tackle the topic of suffering. (pg. 162)

He rounds out this 'section' of spirituality with what he calls, ten tenets of evolutionary theology:

  1. Our evolving universe had a distinct and dramatic beginning. This original emergence or emanation resulted from a primal cause - a primordial creative act.
  2. This cause or creative act that initiated the universe can best be conceived as an "uncaused cause", or first cause.
  3. The first cause is necessarily prior to and transcendent of time, space, energy, matter, and evolution itself.
  4. Because the first cause transcends the finite universe, it can be conceived as being infinite, eternal, and universal. In other words, the first cause is changeless and perfect. Thus, prior to the beginning of evolution, the universe as first cause was in a state of existential perfection.
  5. The creative act that brought forth the finite universe can be partially understood as an act of separation, subtraction, or kenosis, wherein perfection is removed from a part of the universe, which nevertheless remains within the encompassing container of existential perfection.
  6.  The evolving universe that results from this creative act unfolds according to a self-similar pattern, process, and technique of dialectical development. And the pattern's self-similar structure suggests that this same pattern also configures the ongoing creative process of the universe as a whole.
  7. From this we can hypothesize that the thesis of existential perfection is followed and partially negated by the antithesis of the finite universe, and that from the inherent tension of this thesis and antithesis, a synthesis is arising, which we recognize as evolution.
  8. This synthesis emerges with life and matures through the psychosocial domain of evolution, herein free will creatures increasingly develop toward perfect through widening realizations of value  This gradual realization of perfection is achieved through the experience and creation of beauty, truth, and goodness, and related sub-values.
  9. The emerging synthesis of evolution adds to the thesis of existential perfection the experience of becoming perfect - freely and creatively. The antithesis of the finite universe is thus used as the domain wherein experiential perfection is achieved through dialectical evolution.
  10. This evolutionary theology illuminates the instrumental purpose of the noosphere, helps explain the existence of evil and suffering, and connects the intrinsic purpose of each person with the intrinsic purpose of the universe's first cause. 
Now in all fairness, he spends the next 13 pages expanding and better explains these 10 tenets. What is interesting is that - as suspiciously vague as some of these points might sound - they are not attempting a 'bait-and-switch' tactic. He is not secretly selling God or theism, acknowledging "even if we accept a nontemporal first cause as the most plausible account of the big band, this does not necessarily lead directly to theism; the concept of a first cause could turn out to be more of a principle than a personality, and is thus compatible with a variety of nontheistic notions regarding creativity in the cosmos  A first cause can also fit in with Hindu ideas of an impersonal Brahman, and even with some Buddhist conceptions of nondual emptiness." (pg. 171). (Sounds like the position I hold from "Most High God" Part II: Highest State and ...nothing...).

The entire process of evolution (Physiosphere, Biosphere, and Noosphere) proceeds through a process of thesis + antithesis = synthesis, including (interesting enough) the big band and creation of time-space itself. This insight would seem to echo the wisdom of Lao Tzu's Tao Teh Ching's verse 42:
"Tao gave birth to One,One gave birth to Two,Two gave birth to Three,Three gave birth to all the myriads things of the universe".

When further explaining tenets 5 and 6 he touches upon the potential Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism as well. What impressed me the most of these ten tenets are their scientific accuracy as well as their spiritual flexibility. This is not a new form of belief that sets out to replace science. This is a spirituality that transcends science. Something I think we need more of in this world. He describes what an evolved form of spirituality might look like.
"...evolutionary spirituality is not simply a new kind of religion... evolutionary spirituality begins with the recognition that religions or spiritual paths are not static institutions, but rather distinct trajectories of ongoing development with consciousness and culture." pg.218
I think this is a healthy perspective. Although most religious fundamentalists maintain otherwise, the simple fact of the matter is that religions are fluid. They change and evolve over time. There is truly no such thing as the exclusivity and claims for only "one true way". This silliness must be abandoned.


And finally, in chapter 9 he enters into the pragmatic world of the future of culture, ecology  sustainable economy, and short & long-term politics.

In conclusion this book has many extremely far reaching ideas touching upon topics seemingly unrelated, but distinctly sharing commonalities. However, I wish it was better written and significantly less academic and 'technical' for I fear the average reader won't make it much past the half-way point. Which would be a shame, because the great insights, observations, and wisdom would be lost.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network  I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255.

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