Reflection 186: Conviction & Discovery

March 4, 2010

(Copyright © 2010)

What I was getting at in my last post was the common origin of two different urges, the urge to belief and the urge to discovery. If, then, religion and science are both born of awe before the wondrous order of the universe, how is it they so completely diverge? Indeed, one treads the path of convinced opinion and absolute authority, the other the path of doubt and experimentation. Each characterizes the same impetus from a point of view diametrically opposite the other, leading to disparate approaches to experience, incommensurate methods, and incompatible conclusions concerning the nature of the universe and humanity’s place in it. Yet both claim to be driven by the same urge—the urge to truth.

How can this be? What is it about the conscious mind that allows two grand institutions to pursue identical goals by such different—and mutually exclusive—routes, the route of faith-based conviction and the route of experimentation?

By singling out these two I do not mean to imply there are no other routes to truth. There is also the legal route, the political, the economic, the historical, the ethical, or the aesthetic, to name a few that spring to mind. But here I will focus on the religious and scientific aspects of consciousness as examples to suggest how differences between those other aspects might arise. In each mental system or discipline, we must look to the assumptions, methods, languages, great thinkers and practitioners, persistent issues, tools, accomplishments, among other factors bearing on it as a pathway to truth. That is more than I can take on in this post, so I will limit myself to a brief look at a few select aspects of mind in the instance of religion and science.

Overall, I would say that religion works deductively in applying general principles to specific instances, whereas science works the other way round inductively, proceeding from specific instances to whatever principles may apply. That is, religion looks upon the world with answers or foregone conclusions in mind, seeking questions to exemplify what is already known. Science on the other hand looks upon the world with true curiosity about how the world works, and attempts to derive theories that answer to commonalities detected in various concrete phenomena. Religion is instructional or doctrinal in applying prior belief to here-and-now experience; science experimental in deriving theories from actual events.

Religion looks from the familiar or recorded past to the unknown future, relying extensively on conceptual memory and sacred texts to provide a basis for prophecy. Science also looks toward the future, but from the here and now, venturing predictions, paying careful attention to whether they are borne out or not. Prophecy is used to justify prior belief; prediction is used to discover whether or not belief is justified.

Thinking is listening to yourself before you say anything out loud. Religious thought broadcasts prior conclusions onto world events as they unfold; scientific thought casts questions onto the world, then attends to the world’s response. Religion’s goal is the spread of true belief and conformity; science’s goal is independent discovery of truth to expand what is known. Religion suppresses or avoids surprises; science welcomes them. That is, the religious approach is to assimilate new experience to preexisting mental structures; the scientific approach is to expand or alter mental structures in order to accommodate new information.

I offer this heavy-handed cartoon of some of the essential differences between religion and science to illustrate two wholly divergent strategies derived from the same compelling experience of the unknown as exemplified by early peoples’ awe and wonder upon observing the pageant of wheeling stars and wandering planets in times when night skies were clearer and darker than they are in modern experience. I am saying that the urges to both science and religion stem from similar experiences of the universe, but via two different routes or strategies for dealing with the awesome and unknown. The urge to religion relies heavily on explaining or categorizing the universe as the work of one or more superhuman(s) of fearsome power and authority as projected outward from the human mind; the urge to science starts with humility before the unknown, relying more on curiosity, experiment, and  discovery in describing aspects of the universe in terms humans can grasp.

Think of Isaac Newton in his garden (as the story goes) at dusk, perhaps looking upon both an apple on a bough and the full moon rising above the horizon in the distance, apple and moon appearing roughly the same size from his point of view. Abruptly, the apple falls straight to the ground below. Which raises the thought in Newton’s mind, “Why doesn’t the moon likewise fall out of the sky?” And then the realization, “Indeed, the moon is falling! But because it is orbiting the Earth, it is propelled not in a straight line into space, but along its orbital path at the same time Earth draws it to itself, with the result that it perpetually falls both toward us and around us, thus keeping the same distance from us as it does fall.” In some such way did the theory of gravitation emerge in the human mind as a result of an inquiring attitude toward personal experience. No phenomenon was safe from such an approach as would project questions instead of answers onto the universe, in hopes the universe would reveal its secrets directly through its own lawful acts.

Or some such scenario. In contrast, consider Paul of Tarsus writing an epistle to the Romans in which, in the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong:

After arguing that the righteous live by faith, Paul develops a strange line of reasoning designed to show that God has revealed himself to all people through the creation. Then he goes on to say that those who do not discern the truth of God through creation and thus do not worship God properly are, as their punishment, given over to lust, iniquity and the misuse of their bodies among themselves (Preface, The Letters of Paul, Penguin Putnam, Riverhead Books, 1998, my italics).

Here we are not in any such place as Newton’s garden, but are in the mind of Paul as he writes to the faithful in Rome, a city  he never had visited, concerning the gospel of Christ:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written. The just shall live by faith. For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath showed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. . . . Wherefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves: . . . For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet. And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient; Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenant-breakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who, knowing the judgment of god, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them (Romans 1: 17-20, 24, 26-32, original italics).

 Thus it is written. As others have maintained that Haiti and New Orleans have been punished by God for their evil ways, or that destroying infidels by blowing themselves up in their midst will earn Jihadis a secure place in heaven. Picture children—boys—rocking back and forth over the Qur’an in a Wahhabi school in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, memorizing the text as the ultimate authority by which they are to live—and to die. Picture children in American schools, hands over hearts, pledging allegiance to a piece of striped cloth, emblem of a nation exporting chaos, greed, and death to those who do not share its worldview.

Looking to the past is not all bad, nor to the future all good. Religions pay great attention to ethics and how life is to be lived; scientists develop ever more sinister weapons of mass destruction in the name of national defense. Fear is not rational. It seems easier to ring ourselves with missiles than calm the fears of our neighbors and ourselves. Anxiety, suspicion, fear, and anger lead both theologians and scientists to think terrible thoughts and do frightful things. A latent terrorist lurks in the shadows within every human mind.

And cultural influences can so alter the realities of our lives that the individual will to survive can be overwhelmed by the will to die for any common cause perceived to be just. Over 55 million people were killed during the Second World War—each and every one of them for a cause thought at one time by one side or another to be self-evidently righteous. The siege of Stalingrad, firebombing of Dresden, gassing of Jews, nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—all made tactical sense to those with power and authority to carry them out.

So I do not intend to paint every one of the faithful as a reactionary incapable of creative thought, or of the curious as a selfless servant of reason. Being human, all are driven by biological values that color every situation according to their personal palette, as well as by the artistic taste of the culture which informs their every act.

But I do intend to give the impression that religion and science create different worlds for their followers, and if those worlds complement each other to a degree, they also serve to under-mine each other more than create an atmosphere of mutual respect. We need look no farther than to the partisan roilings in Washington for a blatant example of self-righteous creationists in deadlock with curious and experimental evolutionists over who is to control the destiny of America and the world. In the Islamic sphere, the same split is evident, as it is in China, and everywhere else.

How we train our children to employ their minds is crucial to human survival on planet Earth. Whether of a religious or scientific bent, as adults every one of us needs to find eternal truths to believe in, while at the same time remaining open to new insights and discoveries as the world changes before our eyes. That is, we can’t develop one faculty for revealed truths to the exclusion of open experimentation, or vice versa. We need to explore both capacities to their fullest extent in every person. As it is now, we become caricatures of ourselves by siding with one mindset or the other, not celebrating the fact that of the nearly seven billion people on Earth, each is unique, so dismissing all but the few who are more-or-less similar to ourselves. That is the height of ignorance, foolishness, pride, and arrogance. If our upbringing—both formal and otherwise—can do no better than that, then our families, schools, social institutions, and governments are failing us utterly.

The Future Is Now



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