BioRootsofHumanity: Noumena edition

A friend told me some months ago about a Youtube video with Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris discussing religion, atheism, etc. and I finally had an opportunity with enough bandwidth and capacity to watch the two hours of these four proselytizing atheists preaching to the choir for my everlasting edification. How bright and learned can any four people be? Watch it and see at:

Actually to call these four men “atheists” does them injustice. What they believe in is empiricism, a very pragmatic positivism and a humanism deeply rooted in their knowledge and love of science, philosophy, history and literature. They covered a lot of territory but one place in particular I found salient, even luminous.

Hey, let's go down this road.

Hey, let’s go down this road.

In response to Sam Harris asking the others about peak experiences, moments of inspiration or wondrous awe, that are usually discussed in religious terms, all agreed that these are important and substantial and then Mr. Hitchens said that if he had one wish or could make one difference for a better world, it would be to separate the noumenal from the super-natural. I gotta love that guy and the independent intellectual integrity with which he approached the world.

This is important, so please stay close, folks. We are going to attempt a deeply wooded, rugged terrain and I hope not to get lost, but if we do, let’s do it together. As I understand it, the ancient Greeks, i.e., Plato and Aristotle, posited two forms of knowledge, phenomena based upon sentient experience and noumena based upon something else found in the mind, say inherently, but not sentient experience. Noumena may be the “essence” of a thing, or an ideal category or concept, or the object casting the shadow in Plato’s parable of the cave, or some supernatural experience, say information from god. I would guess that Hitchen’s point is that there is no supernatural, only natural, so that noumena must be a category in nature (our biological selves, eh?).

So, let’s reject those things almost necessarily supernatural, such as any divine text about god and heaven etc., the soul (but not the spark of life in the genome and seed/egg), god, angels (but keep Lincoln’s “the better angels of ourselves”), predestination, history and fate guided or determined from without life’s flow, and prophecies, especially the vague sort so in vogue today based upon hindsight (yes, that preacher man did foresee the floods and earthquakes because we endorse gay marriage, but . . .). What noumena does that leave us that can then be approached naturally?

Somethings wonderful, actually. My favorites would be the mystic sense, inspiration beyond the ordinary, a peak experience of life (the experience is phenomenal but the peak is noumenal), luck, coincidence, ethical authority, epiphany (think Aristotle and James Joyce here, not Augustine), pre-cognition, Jung’s archetypes, meditative calm, dreams, and maybe some visions, including even ghosts, but only the natural ones. Oh, and fairies, I cannot leave out fairy noumena.

Whence does noumenal knowledge come? What knowledge rises from within, inherent in the flow and flux of genomic replication over generations, the implicit structure and function of the MEMBRAIN, the spontaneous autogenic activity stemming from the self, the intuitive derivation of new information from old, the symbolic processes of artistic composition and discursive thought?

These four men are only defined by what they disbelieve because of the inquisitorial arguments and methods the religious authorities have exercised in the past (and yes, continue through the present). Watch Richard Dawkins light up, however, as he talks about the joys to be found in the natural world and all their appreciation of clear cogent rational thought. They should really be characterized by their humanism and empirical wonder. When Hitch first made the noumena comment, no one picked up on it. He made it once more towards the end of their conversation. I hope his insight is prescient. My work here to understand the biological roots of humanity, I hope (& pray?) contributes to the effort.

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