I will copy below a post from 4/13/18 about that old iconoclast Christopher Hitchens and his wish that we would segregate the noumenal (think realm of ideas and forms, especially those without tangible or material presence opposed to its opposite the phenomenal) from the supernatural. (See post 11/17/14 for more on the origins of this idea). His suggestion struck me as wise and important—think of it: every noumenal experience is natural—it may not be phenomenal, but neither is it supernatural. And if it is natural, we can work towards understanding it, not as religious or spooky thing, but as something in the natural world. I have taken to saying “If it is, it is natural; if it is not natural, it is not”. And to be clear, this is different from positivism or a reductive materialism, because we acknowledge that something noumenal, e.g., spirit, is naturally present even if we cannot understand it in positivistic or scientific terms. As I mention in the piece copied below, I appreciate any acknowledgement that we are ignorant about a topic and especially that maybe we will always be in the dark about it. I think this very acknowledgement is the sine qua non of intelligence. So to place a landmark in my mind (and yours? well, maybe not–no one noticed I was late with this post) I designated Hitch’s birthday, April 13, as Natural Noumenalist Day to honor him and his seemingly small, very overlooked and remarkably important idea.
I meant to post a remembrance last Saturday, 4/13/19, but I had to travel away for a funeral. My aunt Ferebee was one of the kindest people (who died at age 99, or as she said ‘almost 100’) I knew growing up, yet still took care of business and the details involved in doing things right. As I sat through the visitation and service, I had the very noumenal experience that her children (my cousins) and grandchildren and others who knew her were all laughing with her remembrance. Even the pastors praising her ‘life well lived’ were quite witty (and that is oh so unusual for Baptists). Ferebee’s spirit ‘infected’ us with the delight of knowing her even as we cried knowing she had passed from our world.
I had still planned on re-posting my old Natural Noumenalist Day but was not sure when given my fatigue with travel, spring allergies and garden work and the fun celebrating a family birthday with plenty of food. (Did I mention that Ferebee insisted on feeding her family and friends? Sunday dinners were very important to her.)
I write today because I have just read about another thinker who cherished the idea that our phenomenal world is so extraordinarily complex and that the noumenal minds, aesthetics and the sacred are all quite natural. I am very pleased to be reading Noel Charlton’s intellectual biography Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth. I will post later more generally about this book but I was happy to read a bit earlier that Bateson wondered if there was ‘a sane and valid place’ for an atheistic form of religion between the two nightmares of nonsense: ‘established materialism’ and ‘romantic supernaturalism’. He wondered diligently “whether . . . . there might be found in knowledge and in art the basis to support an affirmation of the sacred that would celebrate natural unity.”
I think that Bateson was another early natural noumenalist and that I will enjoy reading this book. More later on that and now the post from a year ago:
On April 13, 1949, Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth, England. He was a brilliant essayist and exercised a keen intellect. I recently looked him up on Wikipedia and marveled at the number of people listed as his influences; that he took in so deeply from so many, I think, was critical to the quality of his writing and thinking. Today on this April 13th I want to remember him for something he said in a Youtube video of a conversation with his buddies, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris (evangelical atheists the lot of them popularly known as the 4 horsemen of atheism). In response to a question from Sam Harris, he diverged from the rest a bit to their surprise when he said that he would not re-write history to purge religion in part because of the art inspired therefrom (this from a man who wrote a book God is Not Great, to which his friend Salman Rushdie whom he had protected from the fatwa replied that the title was too long by a word). He followed up with the statement, and this shows the independence of his intellectual mettle, that if he could change history, he would separate the noumenal from the supernatural (see my post on 11/17/2014). He maybe did not manage to achieve this in his lifetime but did plant a seed in my mind. Now consider in this light my 3/25/17 post on Jacques Monod who did do just that when he defined the soul not in terms of an supernatural immanence but in scientific terms: “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” We have only to make it so.
Wandering the wilds of Wikipedia I came across the ‘Brights’ vs. the ‘Supers’. Evidently some people of the atheist persuasion have banded together to call themselves the ‘brights’ and the believers the ‘supers’ (for supernatural), in the effort, I think, to be defined by what they believe and not by what they don’t. Commendable except they chose a term that implies the ‘supers’ are dim. They say, oh no, just like not being gay means you are straight and not somber, being bright does not connote others being dim. A couple of the 4 horsemen endorse this position, but not Chris Hitchens who said that for athiests to”conceitedly” self proclaim they are ‘brights’ is “cringeworthy”. I have to agree with Hitch on this one, but still to be defined by what you don’t believe does not make sense—it is a falsely constructed category, like someone who believes in the right to life, as some term themselves, could still be pro-choice for women. Being pro-choice does not entail being against one’s right to live.
As I read about our efforts to understand our world and universe, I always value those who acknowledge, even appreciate, our ignorance and these are mostly scientists because after all, science is based on the objective, i.e., not directly knowable, nature of the cosmos, so that even our most rigorous empirical efforts result in knowledge that is in some real sense conditional and therefore limited. I recently read in James Gleick’s interesting book on information that Curt Godels theorem essentially demonstrates that even our mathematical understanding is messy and incomplete and will always be so (again with contextual conditions). Remember Richard Feynman’s assertion that no one understands quantum theory and that saying you do understand it is proof you don’t—the half joke of a certified genius. I continue to follow efforts to understand dark matter and energy, efforts that seem to meet much frustration as we know ‘bright’ and not dark matter constitutes only 7-10% of the universe. We are ignorant of the other 90% even though many have good ideas. Still we don’t define scientists by what they don’t know or believe.
So back to those who hold, like Hitchens and Monod, that everything is natural, that even noumenal terms like ‘spirit’, ‘soul,’ and other ‘things in themselves’ that are unavailable to objective examination, and that, in short, what we call supernatural, when properly understood, is that facet of nature that we can apprehend but understand objectively only with great difficulty. What can we call ourselves? I propose the catchy term, ‘natural noumenalists’. I think that is a properly constructed category. And I further propose that today, April 13, be known as Natural Noumenalist Day. I will go now and enjoy our day. No need to travel on, just meditate on the quantum realm and get in touch with your ‘spooky’ entangled self. And say thanks to Hitch when you meet him.
And now say ‘hi’ to Gregory Bateson.