The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

On Science and Knowing

One of my students just found out another reason journaling is important. She finished a 101 day cycle. Friends are telling her she is more centered, calmer, changed. But she doesn't feel different. Then...she checked her journal, and looked at the serious differences between the way she operates now and her state just a few months ago. Its true...we tend to "Norm" whatever life position we currently occupy, and do it pretty darned fast.


My official position on science and how much we can know: No, I don't believe "everything" is knowable. I think that we can know a gigantic amount, perhaps everything that is practical or useful in a human context. Perhaps. But for a couple thousand years scientific philosophers have suggested that we "almost" know everything now, and just another little tweak and we'll have it. I don't think so. My guess is that the universe is going to respond to us AS IF our minds are creating reality as we go...that the deeper, or smaller, or further we can see, all we'll keep discovering is that there is even more to know. And that that game will continue as long as we continue to look. To me, the concepts of "God" are attempts to understand what lays beyond the edge of what our conscious minds can embrace.

To that end, human beings impose upon the larger pattern of the universe what we understand of life, consciousness, or intelligence, or familial relationships. Considering computers "intelligent" requires broadening our concepts of intelligence. And considering Earth to be alive (Gaia) requires a broadening of our concept of life. Is it "true"? Depends on how you look at it. But the mental slight-of-hand yields a very useful perspective..."truth" can be debated depending on the definitions at play. Most concepts of "God" assume that this "being" has anthropomorphic characteristics: jealousy, anger, love, etc. Many or most relate this "being" to animal behavior, or family relationships ("fathers," "mothers", mating with humans, etc.) or royalty (wars, holding court, etc. etc.) Because we understand these relationships, they can operate as metaphors.

There is no form of human organization (to my knowledge) that has not yielded some negative results: families abuse, political systems dominate and destroy, businesses steal and murder, and yes, religions can crush the spirit and justify slaughter. The problem, to me, is not in the institution so much as the fact that we, the human beings who establish and maintain those institutions, are very fallible. I feel no despair for humanity, believing that as we communicate more elegantly with each other, the walls will fall. Invariably, when I speak to the most radical people on either side of any issue, what becomes clear is that very few people are aware of the limits of their logical knowledge, that much of what they consider "truth" or "fact" is actually just opinion and feeling.

That is almost certainly less true today than once it was. But I had a recent conversation with a person who believed that certain groups were unreligious. Pressed, he had no evidence for this, and said that he "knew it the same way he knew that if someone drops a wallet, it should be given back."

What? He knew it because he'd been told that by his Mommy? Because he felt it was right for group X to be unreligious? That is a little scary, because like all politicized people, he feels that his corner of the ring is better, smarter, more logical, more American, etc. etc.

Religion is a human institution. The spiritual perspective is the creation of the human mind. The universe is what it is--we can have opinions about its ultimate nature, and my opinion is that we'll never quite get to a full understanding. That that ultimate knowledge will continue to recede before us like the horizon. Of course, I can't prove that any more than others can "prove" that we'll get all the way there.

Doesn't stop me from appreciating science. Among the smartest, best educated and most scientifically-minded people I know, there seems to be approximately the same split between atheists and believers that I see among the most ignorant. I strongly suspect that which way one sees the world has less to do with what you know than with underlying, deeply seated perceptual filters. Since I've seen very very fine people on both sides of the question, I don't worry about that anywhere near as much as I wonder: are they balanced? Are they kind? Do they love?

So long as we follow that road, we live our lives so that if there is no larger reality, we have lived our days the best we can. And if there is a God, of whatever kind, we have lived according to the core dictates of every major religion in the world. And to me, that gets a divine smile. And if at the moment of death I discover that was a Cheshire Cat's grin...well, that's all right too.


Anonymous said...

I think the problem lies less with human institutions being fallible and more with people's inability to admit that their institutions are fallible. Or worse yet, claiming that their institution must be infallible because it's not really a human institution, but a divine one.

Mike said...

>My official position on science and how much we can know: No, I don't believe "everything" is knowable.<

I take the same approach myself, although for non-spiritual reason. I simply I find the Popperian approach "stop trying to focus on PERFECT capital-T _TRUTH!_ and limit yourself to what is falsifiable" to be the best fit with the reality that I observe myself in.

But I can gain much from spiritual views of those such as yourself, because as Popper said, "It is often asserted that discussion is only possible between people who have a common language and accept common basic assumptions. I think that this is a mistake. All that is needed is a readiness to learn from one's partner in the discussion, which includes a genuine wish to understand what he intends to say. If this readiness is there, the discussion will be the more fruitful the more the partner's backgrounds differ."

Anonymous said...

Could you share more about the 101 day cycle? I'm intrigued and might like to give it a try.