Alan Moore on science, religion, and imagination

New Humanist magazine interviewed master storyteller and comics author Alan Moore about science and imagination backstage at last week's "Nine Lessons for Godless People" event. Over at Daily Grail, Greg transcribed some choice bits including Moore's response to the question "Is there a conflict between what can and can't be proven by science?":

I would prefer a two-state solution. My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of 'two lives'. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we've developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head. I would say that both of these worlds are equally real - they're just real in different ways. The concept of a world of ideas, yes it's intangible, it can't be repeated in a laboratory, but pretty much the evidence for it is all around us. In that, every detail of our clothing, our mindsets, of the buildings and the streets and cities that surround us - that started life as an idea in someone's head.

"Alan Moore on Science and Imagination" (Daily Grail)


  1. What a strange combination of renouncing religious dogma and supporting tinfoil hat non-science. I can never figure this guy out.

    1. Well, like what? When he claims that science grew out of “occult practices” for example, he isn’t claiming those occult ideas were actually correct (granted as a historical claim this is kind of dubious, but certainly you can find historians who think that early science was influenced in significant ways by occult ideas at the time, even if they weren’t the sole or most important influence).

  2. I’m glad to find people outside the religious sphere taking what I call the narrative aspect of reality seriously. I have been curious about the dichotomy between narrative and mechanistic understanding for a while and would like to read more of what smart people have to say about it. I think the post-modernists have a lot of work in that area, but their writing is somewhat inaccessible on a couple levels. Mostly I run into either religious people who think reality is all narrative or materialists who think it is all mechanism. I’ve only become more skeptical of the possibility that narrative can be reduced to mechanism and eliminated by science, but what few alternatives I’ve seen that try to bridge the two, like quantum consciousness, seem like mere hand-waving. I dunno, I’d like to hear Moore speak more in depth about this.

      1. …just don’t mistake the real (mind independent) world for something actually possessing the properties of dimensionality or momentum or anything.

        1. epistemologically, your perception is dependant on entropic processes, so will always be entrained within the process that generates it.
          Making a priori assumptions about the existence of a meta-entropy transcending our vacuum seems a little presumptuous.
          Kind of like a circle expecting the universe above flatland to be flat but, you know, MORE flat.

    1. Gilles Deleuze’s writing opened up a lot of interesting approaches to this problem by focusing philosophically on time, repetition, and variation within/at the root of a radically materialist ontology, as they are involved in the dynamics of both mechanical and narratival processes. DIFFERENCE AND REPETITION and A THOUSAND PLATEAUS are major pertinent works, if you’re interested, though personally if you’re looking for less dense and more scientifically familiar choices of terminology, I’d start with the works of Manuel de Landa, one of his followers/interpreters who works with formal systems theory.

      Bernard Stiegler is also doing some really great contemporary work on the interaction of artificial and biological memory in constructing human psychic and social dynamics. Unfortunately most of it is not in English yet, but I think at least the first volume of TECHNICS AND TIME is available in translation, if you can find a copy.

  3. FTL: “I can’t help but wonder how Alan Moore would be treated at these events if he was just an ordinary Joe off the street, saying the exact same words…”

    To which I might add: …and didn’t have a British accent?  …and didn’t have a huge beard?  ..and didn’t…etc.

    zebbart: I don’t understand what you mean by “the dichotomy between narrative and mechanistic understanding”.  I don’t see in what way these are related such that they might hinder/oppose/contradict each other.  To my ear, it’s kind off like saying ‘the dichotomy between carrots and whisky stones.’ 

    /as I get older, I have less and less time and patience for the woo-woo crowd.  Life is too short to waste too much of it barking up the obviously wrong tree.

    1. Paul, the dichotomy is at the very least in how people talk about things that exist. Consider human behavior – we might understand or explain how a person acts 1. narratively in terms of his character and ambitions and relationships and choices, or 2. mechanistically in terms of r physiology. The difficulty is that some materialists insist that all things narrative reduce to mechanistic things, and could be eliminated from our talking and thinking if we had enough intelligence. There are some serious long standing philosophical problems that reductionist materialists have yet to solve, but I think Moore is just addressing the intuitive incredulity most people would have to the idea that everything inside and outside of us is mechanistic and the all narrative is sort of an illusion.

      1. Biology reduces to chemistry, which reduces to physics. You can’t really understand biology well without a sense of the underlying physics and chemistry, but that doesn’t mean biology “could be eliminated from our talking and thinking if we had enough intelligence” – it’s still a perfectly useful perspective.

        1. I’m not entirely clear on how it is that biology ‘reduces’ to physics, other than in the trivial sense that they describe regions of a common material ontology. Does physical formalism provide a definition of life (as a property of dynamical systems), predict its emergence, or specify common dynamics or mechanisms of living organisms?

          (Apologies if I’m just vehemently agreeing with you here, haha)

          1. Biology at it’s most basic is “just” organic chemistry.
            Chemistry, in turn, is “just” the physics of the atomic shell (sorry, google translation).

        2. Why if we had enough memory and processing power, along comprehensive and accurate perception, could we not eliminate biology from our talking and thinking? By the way I have found that it is surprisingly controversial among philosophers of science to say that biology reduces to chemistry reduces to physics. I always assumed that was a safe thing to say, but the fact that people who know a lot more about the subject object to that makes me a lot less confident in asserting it. Are you sure that you can be confident in even those reductions? Anyway, the reduction of narrative things like personal identity, choice, intention, meaning, creativity, etc to mechanical things is much more problematic than the reduction of one level of mechanism to another level of mechanism. Even if biology reduces to chemistry very neatly, I don’t see how that helps confirm that everything reduces to mechanism.

    2. Alex Rosenberg has recently come out with a book describing and defending the implications of eliminative materialism – he happily takes on the label “scientism” – called “The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions.” Just today Ed Feser posted part 4 of his response, dealing specifically with the problems with reductionism/eliminativism. I found it very interesting and relevant to this post.

    1. Not really, he’s from Northampton, about 50 or 60 miles from London. It’s an East Midlands accent.
      But I assume you’re not from the UK, so well done for at least recognising more English accents than the queen and dick van dyke ;)

  4. The esteemed Bishop George Berkeley has already shewn, by Means of Logics Inviolate and Disputations Iron-Clad, that the very Notion of Material objects independent of Ideas in the Mind is a Specious Repugnance.

  5. What’s he talking about the Grand Canyon at the end there? I don’t remember any creationist censorship or propaganda at the GC National Park when I was there five years ago. Is he talking about something else?

    1. Oh yes, there was a kerfluffle about the pseudo-science folks getting their fair representation at the visitors center. And indeed, you can buy a lovely coffee table book detailing how Noah’s Flood created the canyon three thousand years ago. It’s shameful, as Moore points out.

  6. “My basic premise is that human beings are amphibious, in the etymological sense of ‘two lives’. We have one life in the solid material world that is most perfectly measured by science. Science is the most exquisite tool that we’ve developed for measuring that hard, physical, material world. Then there is the world of ideas which is inside our head.”

    Lol, sounds like a rip-off/bastardization of Aldous Huxley’s foreward in J. Krishnamurti’s book ‘The First And Last Freedom’.

    1. Philosophers sometimes build off the ideas of other philosophers. It’s not usually called a rip-off.

      1. Im calling it a rip-off cause it sounds like a watered down misunderstanding of what Aldous Huxley wrote, “Man is an amphibian who lives simultaneously in two worlds – the given and the homemade, the world of matter, life and consciousness and the world of symbols” and he then goes on to speak of the dangers of identification with symbolism (or as Alan puts it: ‘ideas’). Where as Alan is simply repeating the mantra of the glorification of thought that i hear so often.

  7. I love Alan Moore, but the dichotomy was solved long ago. If modern “humanists” would put down the bong pipe and their pretension, they’d see that Christianity identified these two spheres of reality, and Christ repaired the chasm between. It is no coincidence that He is so often referred to as the “Word” of God. He is the meta-narrative. Seek the truth, and you shall find it, but only if you do it in humility, not along the self-worshipping path that Alan Moore paves, no matter how well intentioned, or beautifully decorated it is….

    1. I’ve heard Christians refer to their Christ as the son of God, who delivered the word of God, but I have never heard them refer to Jesus as the “Word of God”. I’m thinking that all philosophical problems look like nails to someone who has thrown away every tool except his big, Christian hammer.

      1. Yup, you’re proving my point exactly. This is in scripture, and has been very profoundly expounded upon by some of the most intelligent people in Western Civilization. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote volumes on the significance of why Christ is the “Word”, in Greek, the Logos, and how this identity of His illuminates the human condition and perspective. Bt y wldn’t knw tht bcs y thnk t’s prfnd t drl vr Lst Grls nd ht th bng.

        1. Interesting, and very “Christian” reply, Soop. My wife, a recovering Catholic, reminded me of “Word made flesh”. It just always struck me as “man who has knowledge of God’s message”—I’m not really seeing the “meta-narrative” in the term.

          BTW, I don’t smoke, and, sadly, I haven’t read any of Alan Moore’s fiction since his wonderful Swamp Thing run. Didn’t your Christ say something pertaining to judging?

      2. …I have never heard them refer to Jesus as the “Word of God”.

        It’s a basic tenet of many Christian philosophies. It’s even in the Tarot.

          1. The Suspended Man symbolizes the word made flesh for reasons which I will leave to Paul Foster Case to explain since they’re densely esoteric.

  8. I really cannot see any genuine dichotomy between “the material world” and “the world of ideas… inside our head”. We only experience and interact with the material world to the extent that effects changes in our heads (well, in our nervous system…), and what goes on in our heads is a product of the combination of current and past interactions with the material world (and those heads function according to material world ‘rules’ also). Our consciousness then emerges from this loop the same way snowflakes find their shape.

  9. Moore should have said “heads” plural, for the world of ideas is really our social reality, it is the world of meaning that we mutually and collectively construct as part of our everyday lived experience. This is what social science is all about. Sociology was created by Emile Durkheim to investigate the world of ideas, the social reality:

    ‘The objective reality of social facts is sociology’s fundamental principle’ – Durkheim’s Aphorism.

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