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This is not a blog

A blog calls for a blogger to hold forth on whatever is top of mind at the time and for readers to chime in when and as they choose.  Based on my experience with it on LinkedIn, I think it is a terrific communications medium.  This is not a blog.

The Infinite Staircase purports to provide a Theory of Everything.  From the outset, we know that this is impossible, so for its author to hold forth any further would simply be extending what is an already extended hubris.  That would not serve anyone. 

This is a forum

A forum is a place to debate ideas.  The Infinite Staircase puts a large number of ideas in play, each with the author’s particular spin on it.  Ideas deserve better than that.  There are many spins to put on them.  There are also many ideas not included in this book that need to get spun up in reaction to it.  For obvious reasons, that can’t be my job.  It has to be yours.

So, what’s the best way to make this work?  I think there are several games to play here.  Two that come immediately to mind are:

  1. You say . . .  But I say . . .  This starts with a brief quote from the book to locate your point of departure from it, and then goes on to present an alternative idea and to make the case for it.  Such posts invite third parties to chime in on either side or to add further alternatives into the mix.
  2. Stump the chump!  In polite company, this is sometimes called Q&A, but let’s face it, anytime an author purports to provide a theory of everything, he is leaving himself open for any number of challenges.  The idea here is to frame the challenge as a question, often a very pointed one, based again on a specific point of departure in the book.  This can spark original dialog on many fronts, which is really the whole point of a forum.

Regardless of how well its arguments land with you, The Infinite Staircase is focused on two questions which I hope you see as being inherently worthy of continued discussion.  The first is, how much of reality as we experience it can be effectively understood within a purely secular worldview?  In our era, that worldview is being updated extensively at the bottom of the staircase, but it has not been updated materially at the upper levels.  Is that OK?  If not, what needs to be done?  And the second inherently important question is, given a secular worldview, where does morality fit in?  I offer a “mammalian” answer to this question, but surely there are other platforms as well, existentialism being one, not to mention a skeptical position that sees morality as an “epiphenomenon” that we are clinging to out of anxiety or insecurity.  All told then, there is a lot to talk about.  But as the closing image below makes clear, at this point in the game.

The ball is in your court

7 comments

  1. As you know, I am a huge fan of your work, so I was excited to learn you had a new book on a very new topic. I read it right away, and while I enjoyed the first part somewhat, I was very surprised at how much I disliked the book overall.
    I’m not sure how well I can sustain a discussion of your two questions (how much of reality as we experience it can be effectively understood within a purely secular worldview, and, given a secular worldview, how does morality fit in) but I am willing to try.
    I think it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to biology and especially to our mammalian nature. I’m excited about the scientific revolution in psychology, a field that has been in great need of being more fully grounded in biology and a clear understanding of our nature (the mind is not just in the brain, etc.) A secular worldview is very compatible with scientific exploration.
    When it comes to morality, I don’t think science is any help, and I don’t think a purely secular worldview is the best answer for our society as a whole, although it may be the best way for any given individual.
    Which brings me to my primary response to the book, which was at a more fundamental level: I wondered why you are so devoted to a purely secular worldview. And by the end of the book, I got the feeling that you think it’s important to jettison the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.
    I think we need that tradition more than ever. I’m not sure how that fits with the importance of science and biology, but I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater! I think — again, on a societal level — we still need both.
    I am willing to re-read the book in order to have a better discussion, and like the idea of choosing specific passages to discuss. And I realize you may not be interested in discussing this aspect of the topic — it is a little rude to ask about what you *didn’t* write about! All the best, Sarah Rolph

  2. Sarah,
    Thanks for your thoughtful post. As it turns out, I think we are more aligned than you may think. Please “read between the lines” below to see how I think this plays out. And other readers, such as there may be, please weigh in to give your perspectives as well.

    As you know, I am a huge fan of your work, so I was excited to learn you had a new book on a very new topic. I read it right away, and while I enjoyed the first part somewhat, I was very surprised at how much I disliked the book overall.

    No better way to get an author’s attention than to say you are a huge fan of his work! 😉 Thank you for that.

    I’m not sure how well I can sustain a discussion of your two questions (how much of reality as we experience it can be effectively understood within a purely secular worldview, and, given a secular worldview, how does morality fit in) but I am willing to try.

    Thank you for this as well. In our polarized society, reaching out to the opposite side is becoming a lost art.

    I think it makes a lot of sense to pay attention to biology and especially to our mammalian nature. I’m excited about the scientific revolution in psychology, a field that has been in great need of being more fully grounded in biology and a clear understanding of our nature (the mind is not just in the brain, etc.) A secular worldview is very compatible with scientific exploration.

    Agreed. Common ground for both of us.

    When it comes to morality, I don’t think science is any help, and I don’t think a purely secular worldview is the best answer for our society as a whole, although it may be the best way for any given individual.

    I don’t disagree with this point. I tried to be careful not to deposition religious faith as a viable platform for living. Communities of faith provide powerful support for ethical living, and I see no reason to want to deconstruct them. The challenge I wanted to take on is, how should you proceed if you want to embrace the ethics but do not believe in the metaphysics? What would authorize the ethics then?

    Which brings me to my primary response to the book, which was at a more fundamental level: I wondered why you are so devoted to a purely secular worldview. And by the end of the book, I got the feeling that you think it’s important to jettison the entire Judeo-Christian tradition.

    This is my failure to communicate. As I mentioned above, I was raised in the ethics of that tradition, and have no desire to abandon them. But I insist on grounding ethics in metaphysics, and since I am deeply attracted to the secular narrative, my goal has been to build a connection between traditional ethics and this new narrative.

    I think we need that tradition more than ever. I’m not sure how that fits with the importance of science and biology, but I am not willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater! I think — again, on a societal level — we still need both.

    I don’t think it makes sense for anyone successfully engaged in a religious narrative to abandon it. We have several thousand years of history to show that, within a community of faith, this works well. The bad part of that history is when a community of faith seeks to impose its vision and values on resistant others—so it is important that righteousness not override humility and compassion in this context. That said, My bathwater/baby story is that I do not want to throw out the baby of received ethics when I throw out the bathwater of religious metaphysics. Hence my desire to build out the secular narrative coherently end to end, and then ground ethics in that narrative.

    I am willing to re-read the book in order to have a better discussion, and like the idea of choosing specific passages to discuss. And I realize you may not be interested in discussing this aspect of the topic — it is a little rude to ask about what you *didn’t* write about!

    No rudeness at all. I would be interested in any additional thoughts my comments may have sparked at your end.

    All the best, Sarah Rolph

    And all the best to you, Geoff

  3. Mr. Moore,

    Continuously building and refactoring models of things and strategies for existing with those things is what gets me out of bed in the morning. Thus my my attraction to this book and your writing in general.

    I am still ‘young’ early 30’s. I have as much angst about mortality as one could expect ‘given my age’ , but I live with it. Your book will help me as I transition and age into ‘mortality’.

    However there is a topic which in the past has brought me to my knees; your book brushes it.

    Mortality of the universe, heat death, the big chill.

    I struggle to deal with this outcome and the alternative, big crunch, is barely better.

    I was hoping the book would come back around and touch the topic again but did not.

    Do you have any thoughts on the topic that you were unable to fit into the book?

    1. Garrett,
      It is always a pleasure to encounter a reader who cares deeply about some of the same things as I do. As for the issue of heat death versus big crunch, I think we have to have some humility about scale. The universe has been around for more than 100,000,000,000 human lifetimes. And we don’t know if we are half through this movie, or more, or less, but I can think of no variable related to its future existence that could affect the quality of life on Earth for literally eons of time into the future. And I think we should be careful using a phrase like “mortality of the universe,” because I am not sure that it is “alive” in any sense that compares to life on Earth. Finally, when all else fails with questions of this ilk, I often fall back on a line from the movie “Meatballs,” where he teaches the kids at his camp, who are obsessing over losing camp games to the other camp, to chant “It just doesn’t matter! It just doesn’t matter!” over and over again.
      Wishing you all the best,
      Geoff

      1. In my college days I sometimes contemplated what voltage was. Eventually After enough ruminating I came back to the standard definition of it being a “potential difference”. I then started thinking about how those words apply to all systems and began to understand entropy.

        This then brought me to the worry of what happens when all potential differences settle. It planted a seedling thought, “What is the point?”, in my mind.

        Under compounded stressors, I had a bit of mental crisis a couple years back; these thoughts came back and crippled me.

        Group Dialectical-BT and mindfulness got me through it but I still occasionally observe this question from the present and have a bit of detached worry for any life that finds itself starved of energy.

        I hope to have some well formed points of critique of this book after a 2nd listen.

  4. Watching enough nature docs one will start to notice that some mammals tend to group together in harem’s. Others form monogamous pairs. I’m sure there are other patterns that I’ve missed.

    What are your thoughts on which step these differences in social structure arise from? And what is the implication for the stairs above this.

    This is me poking at your model and observing. It was a struggle to formulate the question, which tells me I have a re-read of the book and some external research to do.

  5. Garrett,
    Existential anxiety is no joke, as you well know, so it is good to hear that you were able to work through it. On the life starved for energy front, the immensity of energy that is in play dwarfs anything we can imagine for any length of time we could comprehend, so intellectually, I think you can set it aside. Emotions, though, don’t always listen to reason, so I encourage you to keep up the healthy practices that have helped in the past.
    Geoff

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