#FANiac Alert… Why Metaphysics Matters with John Cobb

Get ready to nerd out with your geek out!  It’s a Theology Nerd Throwdown that will make your inner philosopher move like Jagger.  John Cobb is back & this time he is going all out postmodern contrarian.  In this episode Cobb tells explains why metaphysics matters and gives an amazing introduction to the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead.

This was recorded during the Emergent Village Theological Conversation at Claremont School of Theology.

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25 comments
cammoblammo
cammoblammo

I held off listening to this because I needed to wait for an hour-and-a-half slot where I could listen to it properly. I'm attracted to a lot of things in process thought and I wanted to give the philosophical underpinnings of process a fair shake. So I've been looking forward to it for quite a while!

 

Anyhow, I got my chance this weekend, but I have to say I came away feeling rather underwhelmed. Given all the excited comments others have left I wonder if I've missed something. I've thought about my reaction a bit, and it all comes down to a couple of examples JC used when demonstrating the limitations of the current metaphysical apparatus used in the sciences.

 

The two examples I remember were to do with evolution. (I'd love to hear what his issues with Einstein are, and if they're the same as Whitehead's.)

 

First, he suggested that there is a behavioural aspect to evolution: the genes passed on by an organism depend to an extent upon behaviour the organism chooses. Now, modern biology shows this does happen to a point, and there are certain traits that are passed between generations in this sort of general way (check out the Wikipedia article on Lamarckism for some good and not-so-good examples.) However, outside of these sorts of examples (which are well understood and accounted for in the prevalent paradigm) I can't see how this would work. 

 

His question is a good one---what makes organisms under environmental stress act in novel ways, leading to the development of new species? However, Cobb needs to show how this isn't dealt with by natural selection. His account highlights the importance of freedom, but this doesn't actually seem to provide any more explanatory power. It simply introduces another entity to the discussion which offers no benefit. Whilst there are some different metaphysical assumptions going on here, there is no real contradiction between the process and non-process views. 

 

This isn't just a clash of metaphysics---Cobb makes a rather startling claim and doesn't show how his version is any better.

 

The second example involves the gaps in the fossil record. Now, the reasons for the gaps in the fossil record are well understood by scientists. Only a very small fraction of organisms are fossilised, and palaeontologists are always finding so-called transitional forms. Of course, having a complete fossil record requires finding transitional forms between those transitional forms, and transitional forms between those transitional forms, and so on until we have an unbroken, generation-by-generation set of fossils. However, we rarely find generations close together. The gaps in the fossil record are really gaps of hundreds and thousands of generations. Given what we know about the process of fossilisation the fossil record is exactly what we would expect to find given what we know of biology and geology.

 

Even then, I'm not sure how Cobb's point about gaps in the fossil record indicates a metaphysical failure on the part of modern science.

 

There's a lot in process thought I find appealing, and I had hoped this lecture would give me a good philosophical reason to come over to the other side. I'd still like to, but I need a much more convincing critique of my current metaphysical presuppositions to do so. Can someone help me?

joshuawalters
joshuawalters

Can anyone explain what Cobb means by "animal purpose" ? I love this podcast and I'm listening for the 3rd time now. But I can't seem to fill in the spaces when he's discussing this.  Thanks.

bushofears
bushofears

Enjoyed listening to Cobb explaining the value of metaphysics. What I'm really struggling with is trying to figure out how to make the move back from metaphysics to science.  So the flow of his conversation went... a materialist metaphysics underpins contemporary science and this metaphysics is flawed. (Amusingly, he suggested (I think) that no-one really believes in a materialist account of reality; maybe you should all come over to the UK for a while!!) Anyway.. towards the end of the discussion he went on to pose an alternative metaphysics, of the event. But now I want to figure out how I could take that metaphysics and use it to frame an empirical research question. Preferably one that makes sense to someone working in a materialist paradigm. Or have I missed the point somewhere along the way? Forgive me if I have.

RPatrickCollins
RPatrickCollins

@trippfuller totally amazing. Thanks for all the hard work. I make all my amazon purchases through your blog! keep it up! #FANiac

TreyPearson
TreyPearson

Can't figure out how to listen.  -Trey

ngilmour
ngilmour

One more thing: is Cobb's accent Germany or Georgia?  I honestly can't tell if his vowel sounds are Stuttgart or Savannah.

ngilmour
ngilmour

Interesting podcast, to be sure.  Almost thou persuadest me to be process. :)

 

If I'm honest, I can agree with just about everything I heard in this episode, save for the flattening of all reality into what I'd call the secular, that span (in Augustine's theology) between the fall and the eschaton.  I remain convinced that the apocalyptic flavor that runs through Daniel and the New Testament has to remain in order to enjoy fully the hope that the Scriptures enjoin.

 

That said, I really appreciate the moves of appropriating post-Einsteinian vocabularies in order to do theology. 

 

So I suppose I remain a stubborn Open-Theistic quasi-evangelical, friends.  I am sorry to disappoint @Bo Sanders yet again. :)

Randall808
Randall808

(...you might want to check the Amazon link - it doesn't seem to be the "support the podcast" link, it looks like just the straight Amazon.com link.)

Mark Farmer
Mark Farmer

Dr. Cobb's lectures on Whitehead's metaphysics at the 2011 Process and Faith Conference were life-changing for me. Nancey Murphy's book Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism had already persuaded me that every theology presupposes a philosophy. Edwin Friedman had piqued my interest by a lecture on theology and process/systems thinking. Dr. Cobb's lectures on Whitehead then gave me ... not so much a place to stand as a boat to ride in. It is quite an adventure.

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @cammoblammo Maybe it would help if you told us what your "current metaphysical presuppositions" are.   Are you coming from a pre-modern 'orthodox' place or  (as I suspect) from a modern reductionistic scientific model ?  or something else. 

 

Also, I just want to make sure ... did you listen to the first 30 min ?  cuz if you come from the former, that should hit home. BUT if you are coming from the latter, then you may be looking for more.

 

And depending on what you outline for us, I may want to question your first objection here.  But please let us know.  I don't want you to 'miss' this if we can help it :)   -Bo 

BoSanders
BoSanders moderator

 @joshuawalters What minute does it come at?  Let me know and I will jump on it to see if I can help - since I was sitting next to him ;)  -Bo

 

I just love getting to say that last part! 

trippfuller
trippfuller

@RPatrickCollins awesome!!! Thanks!!

trippfuller
trippfuller

@franzbibfeldt I think @leadfromfringe would be against it as well

trippfuller
trippfuller

@franzbibfeldt are you saying that a hairy pudge ball of a theo-nerd shouldn’t do the dance?

cammoblammo
cammoblammo

 @BoSanders If I had to describe my metaphysic it would probably come down somewhere close to a reductionist scientific model, although there's plenty of room for emergent properties that are more than the mere sum of constituent parts.

 

I just relistened to the first thirty or forty minutes and there's nothing there that really excited me. In fact, I came away thinking that a lot of what Cobb sees as problems with the dominant metaphysical paradigm are generally well known and can be accounted for within that paradigm. That's not to say it's correct (whatever that might mean), or that it's the best available option---merely that the problems Cobb outlines aren't necessarily insurmountable. So yes, I guess I am looking for more!

 

Any offers of help will be gladly appreciated!

joshuawalters
joshuawalters

 @BoSanders He begins getting into this when he discusses Hartshorne's theory that birds also sing for pure enjoyment (ca. 36:17). He explains that this would be dismissed by the prevalent metaphysic (38:20...). Then at 38:38... "The same thing has happened in evolutionary theory: one cannot allow animal purpose to play any role, because purpose can't play a role. That's a metaphysical judgment."Is there a distinction between "animal purpose" and "finding a mate", "survival", "passing on genes", etc. ?

franzbibfeldt
franzbibfeldt

@trippfuller Two Nietzsche quotes: "The abdomen's why man doesn't take himself to be a god." "I cannot believe in a god who does not dance."

franzbibfeldt
franzbibfeldt

.@trippfuller As a fellow hairy pudge ball, I'd be the last to talk. That said, it isn't meet & right for any theologian to dance to Maniac.

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