Thursday, October 16, 2014

[Yasmin_discussions] Opening Statement for Supernatural Discussion, by Margaret Wertheim

Hi All

Let me introduce myself: I'm Margaret Wertheim, a science writer, curator, and author of books on the cultural history of physics, including "Pythagoras' Trousers" a history of the relationship between physics and religion, and "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace", a history of Western concepts of space from Dante to the Internet. Throughout my career, I've pursued new ways of communicating science to the public. As an outgrowth of this interest, in 2003 I founded the Institute For Figuring, a Los Angeles based nonprofit devoted to "public engagement with the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics". ( We're a new kind of organization operating at the intersection of science and art. Through my work with the IFF, I've curated science-based exhibitions for museums and galleries around the world including the Art Center College of Design (Pasadena), the Chicago Cultural Center, the Hayward Gallery (London), the Science Gallery (Dublin), University of Southern California (Los Angeles), and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C.). Our Crochet Coral Reef project is the perhaps largest participatory science+art endeavor in the world, and has been conducted in a dozen countries including the USA, UK, Australia, Germany, Latvia, and the United Arab Emirates. ( A book on the subject is forthcoming in 2015. I was invited into the discussion by Stephen because of my books above and my ongoing interest in the interface between science and religion.

Here's my Opening Statement
Perhaps one of the most difficult questions in science is what counts as natural and what (if anything) might be considered beyond the laws of science, i.e. literally supernatural. Throughout the seventeenth century the subject was discussed by all the major proponents of the 'scientific revolution'. Descartes famous division between the 'res extensa' (the realm of matter in motion) and the 'res cogitans' (the realm of thoughts, feelings and emotions), was an attempt to get to grips with this question. As Descartes saw it, science could describe matter in motion through empty (Cartesian) space, while all that we now class under the domain of psychology was, he believed, outside the bounds of science. As a Catholic, Descartes was trying to save the phenomenon of the Christian soul (and along with it, a concept of salvation), while at the same time carving out a practical territory for the emerging natural sciences. Descartes, like Newton, insisted that the soul was a real phenomenon existing in a domain beyond the spatio-temporal world - something actually supernatural. But it wasn't just the soul he was saving, it was the very idea of a subjective self - the I that utters its unique viewpoint as we are each doing in this discussion. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that our conception of reality was cleaved in half, giving rise to the view that the realm of the real consists solely of matter in motion.

Mechanism caused a crisis for people of religious persuasion, but what interests me is the crisis it's created in the secular world. We are all inheritors of mechanisms' dilemma: If reality is simply matter in motion, how do we explain subjectivity, the I, the me, the you, that utters opinions, feels love, and is capable of having an argument. Neuroscientists now refer to this as the "hard problem". In the 21st century, with neuroscience, we've taken away the religious context of this debate, but the fundamental problem remains: if we think of 'nature' as purely the domain of matter, then how can we understand the phenomenon of self and subjectivity? I'm not suggesting here that we readopt Cartesian dualist metaphysics; but I do think materialism puts us into an epistemological bind that is creating deep psychological trauma in our society. For those who may be interested, I wrote an essay on this subject for a book that was published by the Royal Society in 2010. The book, called "Seeing Further" (edited by Bill Bryson) was a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society and my essay was about how post-Newtonian metaphysics has left us psychologically at sea. If folk are interested I can post the essay too.
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