Wednesday 9 May 2012

Education and God

This is the start of a big topic, which I have been stimulated to begin after reviewing an extraordinary book of scholarly essays on physics, information, biology and theology edited by Paul Davies and Niels Henrik Gregerson: see I'll post up my review (which is for the Journal of Critical Realism) in the near future. But I'm currently reflecting on the material in the book - which has challenged some of my own underlying assumptions - and am reflecting on what this might mean for education.

It has become unfashionable to assert the importance of God in education, although notable Christian scholars, emphasising the ontological and existential foundations of education, have often drawn attention to it. T.S. Eliot, for example, in arguing that the purpose of education is the "transmission of culture", and that culture can only become what education is able to transmit, complains that:
"In our headlong rush to educate everybody, we are lowering our standards and more and more abandoning the study of those subjects by which the centrals of our culture–of that part of it which is transmissible by education–are transmitted; destroying our ancient edifices to make ready the ground upon which the barbarian nomads of the future will encamp in their mechanised caravans."
C.S. Lewis made much the same argument in "The abolition of man" - an essay on the vices and hubris of technology. More recently, Alisdair Macintyre has complained of the disappearing 'universality' of University education, complaining that in the modern research university, certain questions cannot be asked. Theological issues, he argues, have become marginalised within schools of divinity (if they exist!), whereas such matters used to form the backbone of all academic study.

Davies and Gregerson's book is a sign that the theological backbone might be reasserting itself (if a backbone can assert itself?!) in surprising ways. Fundamentally, this new movement is bubbling up from physics: one of the disciplines whose logical rationalism might be held partly accountable for the marginalising of theology in the first place. Davies is part of a small group of physicists who, staring at the peculiar complexities of quantum mechanics, are questioning the utility of the mechanistic 'common sense' notions of classical physics. Instead of simple notions of 'primary matter' of Newton's "solid, massy, hard, impenetrable, moveable particles" physicists are looking at computational, statistical, informational models of the universe. Computer technology becomes an indispensible tool for the apprehension of the nature of matter, and following this, information becomes the bedrock upon which scientific practice can proceed. 

In addition to this informational focus, there is also an emerging critique of physical causality. In the quantum world there are no regular successions of events as Hume was able to distinguish and establish his theory of causation. In the quantum world, causation seems to operate in a different way, leading many of the contributers to the book to talk of 'downward causation', or degrees of circularity in causation.

But this means that the inquiry into matter entails an inquiry into information, and information is a poorly understood phenomenon. We use the term very loosely: information is related to communication in terms of the transmission of 'bits', as Claude Shannon discovered. But communication itself is much more than the transfer of information. Meaning, or the semantic content of information, is also fundamental to the process. Then there are issues relating to biology and the 'information' that we consider to be coded in genes. The causal processes by which genetic 'information' contributes to the emergence of form is another category of thinking about 'information'. Genes do not cause the development of an organism; the 'information' of DNA forms part of a process the vast majority of which is obscure. Yet the concept of 'genetic information' has established itself with little deep critique in popular discourse.

Of the types of information which show themselves to be most significant, however, semantic information is the one which takes us back to theology. For the nature of meaningful information implies some kind of consciousness, and it is difficult to escape the possibility of a consciousness outside the realm of the human intellect when observing informational processes in matter and biology. Issues of care and responsibility go hand-in-hand with issues of downwards causation and purpose.

And here we have a problem. Because these issues are arising from those disciplines around which much of the modern curriculum has been constructed, and much of the academic marginalising of theology has taken place. Yet the scientific necessity for the consideration of circular causality, semantics and consciousness in the deeper consideration of matter and biology seems to be encroaching upon us. As computers and 'information' increase their on our own conscious experience and thoughtful practice, there is every reason to expect further pressure to deepen our understanding and questioning of ontological issues in ways where matters of religion are inescapable.

This is of course not to argue for "belief" (which itself it subject to an analysis of information!). But it is to say that some of the fundamental issues of theology are increasingly difficult to escape in our consideration of science. That this may give greater impetus for deeper and more engaged scientific endeavour may be a driver for a richer cultural transmission (that Eliot wishes for), and ultimately a deeper and more engaged critique of education itself.

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