Dave Snowden

on meaning from a realist perspective

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Yesterday’s post received a gratifying response, thanks to all who volunteered and I will be in touch soon to elaborate the peer review/engagement process. In that post I mentioned two linked projects: one for citizen engagement, the other for meaning. The latter is more problematic to describe as it does, and does not include the whole issue or spirituality, of a sense of the other or something more than the atomistic selfish individual of too many political theories. The reason for the ambiguity is that there is too much sensation (and I thought hard before I chose that word) around the whole issue of religion in the modern world. Mary Midgely famously accused Dawkins of creating a new religion scientism and I added to that the provocation that he saw himself as its first prophet; there is an Old Testament sense of certainty and righteousness about the Blessed Richard. I don’t recognise the God that Dawkins’s describes in his various writings, but I can recognise it in the nasty, brutish and judgemental collection of prejudices that comprise the religious right. I resent being forced to choose between two extreme poles of a false dichotomy. Mankind had a pretty poor record when it comes to intolerance and brutality but at the same time humankind has a outstanding record of acts of sacrifice, discovery and sympathy. Both aspects are shared by atheists and Institutional religion alike; the Church has a record of enabling and creating science as well as suppressing its discoveries. There are no simple causal links between any human phenomena and we need more nuanced understanding and discourse than the provided by professional polemicists.

As it happens Nigel Warburton (if you haven’t got his podcasts get them) was tweeting a series of quotes from Moby Dick on twitter yesterday. One of them struck me as relevant to this post and to complexity in general:

‘But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm.’

There is a sense of the Dao about that quote and it is probably no coincidence that a lot of us working in complexity reference Daoism as encompassing much of what we know about complex systems. A good friend, Peter Allen does as much in several writings and he was one of Prigogine’s doctoral students and I could give other examples.

To switch the theme briefly to five personal experiences in reverse chronological order.

  1. A couple of years ago visiting Mary at here home in Connecticut to work on her book I was taken to her local church on Sunday. I think it was Congregationalist but aside from a few token hymns it was mostly about community identity and political activist – the sermon was on the Palestinian question as were most of the following discussions.
  2. When I left IBM around twelve years ago one of the first events I organised was in Saskatoon focused on innovation, but starting with a disruptive encounter with indigenous religion through a spirit journey.  Now a spirit journey is a form of meditation and can be centred in a spirit animal. Discovery of that centre is a gradual process over a long period of time so claiming on your first experience that you have met your own mountain lion is a little pretentious. 
  3. I remember two early visits to Ireland, one to Drogheda as a student and the other to the Dingle Peninsular with a precocious three year old and a babe in arms.  In both cases the Mass was a social process, indeed the men of the community stood outside smoking and sorting out local issues only going into the Church when summoned by the bells.
  4. At University when I shifted from the Church in Wales to become a Catholic, the daily mass was a ritual act of community as much as religious practice.  There was a rhythm to the day and to the event itself.  I always thought we made a mistake as a Church when we abandoned the universal latin mass – it created a ritual practice of community.
  5. Not really in sequence as it is ongoing, but when I started walking in Snowdonia again on my 60th birthday after loosing weight as part of diabetes reversal I knew I was home in the Cynefin sense of the word when I heard the croak of a raven as I approached Bwlch Main.  As it happens the raven is my spirit animal and I still remember the first time I heard that croak on the Pyg track on my first ever ascent of Yr Wyddfa.  Those mountains and that sound has a physical impact on how I perceive the world.

Now I have listed those experiences, not to attract a religious debate. Remember I have a background in science and am a realist in philosophical terms. My work for the past two decades has been to find ways to apply natural science to social systems. The more you do that, the more you realise that religious experience, or spirituality or (to be as uncontroversial as possible) a sense of the other is a part of what we are as a species and understanding that is ill suited to a Cartesian separation of the mind from the body. That sense is physical, not just a simple abstraction.

So what does all this mean in the context of my post of yesterday? Why I have used a picture of Ahab and the White Whale? Well the latter is easy, for Ahab the pursuit of that whale provided meaning, obsessional, uncaring possibly narcissistic but it gave a sense of purpose. Karl Rahner who had (and has) a profound influence on my thinking combined Neo-Thomism with ideas from Heidegger argued that religion is fundamental to what we are, but authenticity is linked to cultural context. So the community of which we are a part gets it identity not just from utility, but from shared abstract understanding of our interdependence and relationship (for Rahner students that is my interpretation and I know I am simplifying the whole of the Nouvelle Théologie for which I apologise). We are not just material, selfish brutes motivated by some net-darwinian selfishness, let alone a primary replicator either meme or gene.

The question is what takes the place of those institutions? In the local church at Avebury there are screened off pews for the gentry, but they still met with the ordinary people on Sunday and shared a common base set of meanings that provided coherence. In a modern, fragmented world increasingly and paradoxically fragmented and perversely connected at the same time, meaning is now a problematic issue for our survival as a species. We need to understand what is the form that meaning takes and its potential vectors, that is the second of the two projects I referenced yesterday.

I started with a quote from Moby Dick, so I want to finish with another from Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin. For those who don’t know the book it explores the ability of sexuality and politics. The book title references a poem that she wrote for the book, recited by Estraven to Ai on the journey over the ice which provides a spine and central metaphor for the book:

Light is the left hand of darkness
and darkness the right hand of light.
Two are one, life and death, lying
together like lovers in kemmer,
like hands joined together,
like the end and the way.

The poem is a plea to avoid dualism, to understand that we are more than we are and that we can become more still.

PS – I have only touched on the realist aspects of this, more in future posts. Tomorrow will be ethics and unintended consequences

  • Dimitar Bakardzhiev

    by Steve Turner

    We believe in Marxfreudanddarwin
    We believe everything is OK
    as long as you don’t hurt anyone
    to the best of your definition of “hurt”,
    and to the best of your definition of “knowledge”.

    We believe in sex before, during, and
    after marriage.
    We believe in the therapy of sin.
    We believe that adultery is fun.
    We believe that sodomy’s OK.
    We believe that taboos are taboo.

    We believe that everything’s getting better
    despite evidence to the contrary.
    The evidence must be investigated
    And you can prove anything with evidence.

    We believe there’s something in horoscopes,
    UFO’s and bent spoons.
    Jesus was a good man just like Buddha,
    Mohammed, and ourselves.
    He was a good moral teacher though we think
    His good morals were very bad.

    We believe that all religions are basically the same-
    at least the one that we read was.
    They all believe in love and goodness.
    They only differ on matters of creation,
    sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation.

    We believe that after death comes the Nothing
    Because when you ask the dead what happens
    they say nothing.
    If death is not the end, if the dead have lied, then its
    compulsory heaven for all excepting perhaps
    Hitler, Stalin, and Genghis Kahn

    We believe in Masters and Johnson
    What’s selected is average.
    What’s average is normal.
    What’s normal is good.

    We believe in total disarmament.
    We believe there are direct links between warfare and
    Americans should beat their guns into tractors .
    And the Russians would be sure to follow.

    We believe that man is essentially good.
    It’s only his behavior that lets him down.
    This is the fault of society.
    Society is the fault of conditions.
    Conditions are the fault of society.

    We believe that each man must find the truth that
    is right for him.
    Reality will adapt accordingly.
    The universe will readjust.
    History will alter.

    We believe that there is no absolute truth
    excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth.

    We believe in the rejection of creeds,
    And the flowering of individual thought.

    If chance be the Father of all flesh,
    disaster is his rainbow in the sky
    and when you hear:

    “State of Emergency!”

    “Sniper Kills Ten!”

    “Troops on Rampage!”

    “Whites go Looting!”

    “Bomb Blasts School!”

    It is but the sound of man
    worshipping his maker.

  • jonhusband


    Well put.

  • Mary Boone

    Intriguing post, Dave. A is sorting out his spirituality right now and because he is not keen on getting up early on Sunday morning and going to church he said, “Why do I have to go to church? Why can’t I just read the Bible on my own or something?” I said, “Because as part of a church you are part of a community and that community helps you to stay focused on the things that make you a better person and provides you with opportunities to meet with, connect to and learn from other people in places like South Dakota, South Africa, Haiti, and Palestine. Basically, the church helps with your spiritual development which is just as important as your physical, intellectual and emotional development. Besides, when’s the last time you picked up the Bible to read it on your own?” I got silence on that one.

  • allanwith

    Very interesting post indeed. Personally, after having been introduced to Cynefin, I have started to see humans as having (at least) four different dimensions:
    The physical dimension, belonging in the obvious domain.
    The intellectual dimension, belonging in the complicated domain.
    The emotional dimension, belonging in the complex domain.
    And finally the spiritual dimension, belonging in the chaotic domain.

    I realize that this is a bit controversial to those who have strong religious beliefs. To me religion fits in the domain that makes the most sense for each individual. For some it is obvious, while to others it may be complicated or even complex. Spirituality, in my view, is a common trait among all humans, no matter your beliefs. We all have some sort of relation to our own mortality, the universe, etc. and things that we don’t know or understand the meaning of – and atheism is also a way of handling that question. Some of these things will get challenged over time by science, but I don’t see spiritually going away any time soon.

    • Dave Snowden

      I wouldn’t map it like that, or start with those categories. Separating the first three doesn’t really match what we know about the science of it and the fourth I would see as bound up in the other three. As you say it is a universal and it isn’t opposed to science of itself, the idea of a progressive roll back of religion by sciences is a 19th/20th Century notion but I think we can move beyond that.

      • allanwith

        Okay, that’s interesting. But isn’t that the beauty of it, that it fosters conversation? And absolutely, I am not opposed to religion or spirituality, I find them to be integral parts of humanity (for better or worse sometimes).

        I am aware, that you can’t confine those four human dimensions within each of the domains that I ascribe them to. And of course they all intertwine with each other, I am not trying to say that they are separate. I have chosen to say that they primarily belong in those domains, because that is how we typically think about them.

        We tend to think about our physiology as something that is a given and obvious, although, clearly, as you say, science has shown us otherwise and there are lots of things we don’t know about it.

        Intelligence can be many things and mean different things to different people. However, I placed the intellect in the complicated domain, primarily because that is the domain that often requires analysis and expert knowledge.

        Emotions are complex to me, because you often don’t know what you feel until afterwards. You often act rashly and in the spur of the moment – kind of like just-in-time decisionmaking (although not quite).

        Finally, I can totally understand why you’d say that spirituality is bound up in the first three, but to me it does deserve its own classification. Spirituality in general terms is universal, we can agree on that, and addresses the unknown, where we can’t really see any causality. “Why was the father of three run over by a car?” is there any meaning to that? Often we seek into our own spirituality for an explanation. But I do distinguish between the concepts of spirituality, which is something personal and generally undefined, and religion, which is often very defined and structural and applies to many people, although their spirituality-relationship will dictate their own interpretation of the religion that they practice.

        Perhaps these classifications are oversimplifying, but sometimes that is what models need to be…

        I’d be curious though, how would you classify then?