Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Mohrhoff is no amateur

9 nemonemini 05/17/2010 2:35 pm
The idea of involution is problematical, discussed here:
10 Timaeus 05/17/2010 4:04 pm
I’ve already made a general statement about Hinduism in my comment on the May 15 post by Denyse, so I won’t repeat it here. Regarding Mr. Mohrhoff’s explication of the relationship of Hinduism to evolution, I find it muddy.
One of the problems is that discussions of evolution in a Hindu context often employ the term “evolution” equivocally. Sometimes it means something like “self-development” or “expression over time of an implicit nature”, and sometimes it refers to the psychological or biological development of the individual, rather than a cosmological or macroevolutionary process, and at other times several meanings overlap in unclear ways.
The problem goes back to the original meaning of “evolution” in English, which prior to the fusion of Darwin’s ideas with Spencer’s vocabulary (Darwin hardly used the term “evolution” in his earlier writings) meant something different from what it does today.
Thus, older translations of the Hindu texts may use the word “evolution” in a way that misleads the modern reader. Even modern expositions of Hinduism (like the one attempted by Mr. Mohrhoff) may do this.
I think the point that Mohrhoff is making is that the kind of self-unfolding of the physical and organic universe may be conceived in a way that is neither the random chance of Darwinism nor the intelligent design of Paley, but more like the development of an oak tree from an acorn. Thus, there is a design or plan, but not necessarily proceeding from a conscious intelligence, but more like an implicit intelligence. So later life forms might “evolve” from earlier life forms neither due to chance nor due to conscious steering by a man-like Deity, but due to an inner necessity. Of course, that inner necessity would ultimately be traceable back to the ultimate divine source of all being, Brahman, but Brahman does not stand to nature as a Creator-god does in Western religion. That is why he is distancing his Hindu solution from intelligent design. At least, that is my guess about his meaning.
Of course, one could argue that the unfolding or “evolution” of an acorn into an oak testifies to an implicit intelligent design, a kind of packed-in plan. Thus, if the evolution of the cosmos and life is like the development of an oak tree, or of a human embryo, etc., this “Hindu” solution could be thought of as an indirect form of intelligent design. But I don’t think Mohrhoff would accept that interpretation.
Generally speaking, I distrust discussions of evolution in relation to Eastern religions. Almost always I find they involve some distortion, because the writers or speakers have an inadequate understanding of modern evolutionary theory, or of Eastern religion, or of both, and frequently they are so eager to find connections that their scholarship is sloppy. I do not know of a first-rate *scholarly* treatment of Hinduism and evolutionary theory, and I think the lack of authoritative scholarly handling has allowed a lot of amateurs and dilettantes into the discussion. And while Mr. Mohrhoff may be a bright individual, I don’t think a German physicist is the right man to put together Sanskrit studies of the Upanishads with modern evolutionary biology. Nor does the editorial board of his journal strike me as filled with people who are highly qualified for such a project. T. 
11 Matteo 05/17/2010 11:08 pm
There is an affinity between atheism and Hinduism (at least as understood pantheistically) in terms of rejecting ID. It flows from the simple fact that both belief systems reject the maxim: “There is a God, and you are not Him”. 

Timaeus 05/16/2010 2:10 pm
Some comments have been made here about Hinduism. As I did graduate-level study of that religion, I thought I should make some points. […] If the speaker wanted to make the very general point that evolutionary ideas *can be found* in Indian thought — Hindu or Buddhist — I would have no objection. But to say that evolutionary ideas can be found in Indian thought is different from saying (1) Indian thought overall is evolutionary [in the modern Western sense] or (2) Indian evolutionary thought is historically responsible for Western evolutionary thought.
On the second point, while it is possible that some Greek thinkers came into contact with Indian thinkers, it is not certain (the ancient accounts of Pythagoras’s travels and so on are notoriously unreliable); and in any case, what we have left of Pythagoras is not evolutionary in a Darwinian sense. As for the proto-evolutionary ideas in Ionian thought and atomist thought, they are a logical outflow of materialism and atomism, and don’t require any hypothesis of Indian influence.
Almost any “big idea” is found in parallel forms around the world. That doesn’t show historical influence. There is no evidence that Darwin, Lamarck, etc. were thinking about Hinduism when they formulated their evolutionary notions. If they were thinking about ancient thinkers at all, it was probably the atomists or the Stoics, and both of those schools can be accounted for as home-grown phenomena of the West.
As for the other comment made by Ilion, that Christianity and Hinduism are in opposition, it of course depends entirely upon which features of Christianity and Hinduism you single out for comparison. There are important differences and important similarities. But both are opposed to all forms of purely mechano-materialistic thought insofar at they affirm a spiritual reality which cannot be reduced to matter in motion or laws of nature or chance.
A Hindu philosopher might easily be a “theistic evolutionist” of some sort, i.e., might believe that the universe in its physical aspect unfolds in accord with a set of material necessities, while affirming ultimate divine sovereignty over all that happens, and the freedom of the human soul to transcend material necessity through knowledge of the divine.
A Hindu thinker might even be able to accept, in some limited form, neo-Darwinian mechanisms. But the Hindu thinker would never agree with the interpretation put upon evolution by Dawkins, Coyne, etc., and still less with the sunny, “progressive” notion of evolution promoted by Huxley and others. Neither atheism nor “progress” in the Western sense are acceptable principles to orthodox schools of Hinduism.

25 Timaeus 05/18/2010 12:42 pm Zephyr @ 20:
Perhaps I made a hasty judgment about Mohrhoff and his associates.
From the description of their academic training given on the web site, it seemed to me that very few of them had any deep exposure to bona fide Indian thought, and that gave me the impression that they were dilettantes of a New Age variety. However, if you can verify that they are all serious scholars in their fields, then perhaps they have also taken the time to read serious works on Indian philosophy. So I’ll suspend judgment.
Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that any public arguments trying to link Indian thought with western science in general, or evolutionary theory in particular, ought to make substantial use of the texts of the Indian tradition. This can be done well or badly. On the related thread to this one, from a few days ago, I pointed out where someone had done it badly.
Capra, in the Tao of Physics, demonstrates a serious knowledge of Indian tradition. I cannot speak for his interpretation of modern physics, but he appears to understand the basics of Hindu and Buddhist thinking well, and to have consulted well-established secondary literature. If Mohrhoff knows the Indian tradition as well as Capra does, then I would listen to his suggestions with respect. T.

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