Skip to main content

[This is the 5th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship]

Know you what it is to be a child? … it is
to believe in belief….
 – Francis Thompson, 19th c. British poet
We don’t forget our first ah-ha experience any more than we forget our first kiss. The difference is we have some idea of what to expect from a kiss, but we don’t know what to make of an enlightening incident. The experience lingers in memory as something special, but since we can’t account for it, we’re apt to keep it to ourselves.

Only in my thirties did I realize that an experience I’d had in my teens was the analogue of that first kiss. About six years after discovering that our third grade science book contained mistakes, it struck me that anything could be wrong. There were no infallible truths, no ultimate explanations.

In high school we were learning that science theories and models were not to be regarded as absolute truths, but rather taken to be useful descriptions that might someday be replaced with better ones. I accepted this way of holding scientific truth—it didn’t seem to undercut its usefulness. But I still wanted to believe there were absolute, moral truths, not mere assumptions, but unimpeachable, eternal verities. My mother certainly acted as if there were.

But one day, alone in my bedroom, I had the premonition that what was true of science applied to beliefs of every sort. I realized that, as in science, political, moral, or personal convictions could be questioned and might need amending or qualifying in certain circumstances. The feeling reminded me of consulting a dictionary and realizing that there are no final definitions, only cross references. I remember exactly where I was standing, and how it felt, when I discovered there was no place to stand, nothing to hold on to. I felt sobered, yet at the same time, strangely liberated. After all, if there were no absolutes, then there might be an escape from what often seemed to me to be a confining social conformity.

With this revelation, my hopes for definitive, immutable solutions to life’s problems dimmed. I shared my experience of unbelief with no one at the time, knowing that I couldn’t explain myself and fearing others’ mockery. I decided that to function in society I would have to pretend to go along with the prevailing consensus—at least until I could come up with something better. For decades afterwards, without understanding why, I was drawn to people and ideas that expanded my premonition of a worldview grounded not on immutable beliefs, but rather on a process of continually improving our best working assumptions.

Science Models Evolve

It’s the essence of models that they’re works in progress. While nothing could be more obvious—after all, models are all just figments of our fallible imaginations—the idea that models can change, and should be expected to yield their place of privilege to better ones, has been surprisingly hard to impart.

Until relatively recently we seem to have preferred to stick to what we know—or think we know—no matter the consequences. Rather than judge for ourselves, we’ve been ready to defer to existing authority and subscribe to received “wisdom.” Perhaps this is because of a premium put on not “upsetting the apple cart” during a period in human history when an upright apple cart was of more importance to group cohesiveness and survival than the fact that the cart was full of rotten apples.

Ironically, our principal heroes, saints and geniuses alike, have typically spilled a lot of apples. Very often they are people who have championed a truth that contradicts the official line.

A turning point in the history of human understanding came in the seventeenth century when one such figure, the English physician William Harvey, discovered that the blood circulates through the body. His plea—“I appeal to your own eyes as my witness and judge”—was revolutionary at a time when physicians looked not to their own experience but rather accepted on faith the Greek view that blood was made in the liver and consumed as fuel by the body. The idea that dogma be subordinated to the actual experience of the individual seemed audacious at the time.

Another milestone was the shift from the geocentric (or Ptolemaic) model (named after the first-century Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy) to the heliocentric model (or Copernican) model (after the sixteenth-century Polish astronomer Copernicus, who is regarded by many as the father of modern science).

Until five centuries ago, it was an article of faith that the sun, the stars, and the planets revolved around the earth, which lay motionless at the center of the universe. When the Italian scientist Galileo embraced the Copernican model, which held that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun, he was contradicting the teaching of the Church. This was considered sacrilegious and, under threat of torture, he was forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, making further astronomical discoveries and writing books for posterity. In 1992, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Roman Catholic Church had erred in condemning Galileo for asserting that the Earth revolves around the Sun.

The Galileo affair was really an argument about whether models should be allowed to change without the Church’s consent. Those in positions of authority often deem acceptance of their beliefs, and with that the acceptance of their role as arbiters of beliefs, to be more important than the potential benefits of moving on to a better model. For example, the discovery of seashells on mountaintops and fossil evidence of extinct species undermined theological doctrine that the world and all living things were a mere six thousand years old. Such discoveries posed a serious challenge to the Church’s monopoly on truth.

Typically, new models do not render old ones useless, they simply circumscribe their domains of validity, unveiling and accounting for altogether new phenomena that lie beyond the scope of the old models. Thus, relativity and quantum theory do not render Newton’s laws of motion obsolete. NASA has no need for the refinements of quantum or relativistic mechanics in calculating the flight paths of space vehicles. The accuracy afforded by Newton’s laws suffices for its purposes.

Some think that truths that aren’t absolute and immutable disqualify themselves as truths. But just because models change doesn’t mean that anything goes. At any given time, what “goes” is precisely the most accurate model we’ve got. One simply has to be alert to the fact that our current model may be superseded by an even better one tomorrow. It’s precisely this built-in skepticism that gives science its power.

Most scientists are excited when they find a persistent discrepancy between their latest model and empirical data. They know that such deviations signal the existence of hitherto unknown realms in which new phenomena may be discovered. The presumption that nature models are infallible has been replaced with the humbling expectation that their common destiny is to be replaced by more comprehensive and accurate ones.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many physicists believed they’d learned all there was to know about the workings of the universe. The consensus was that between Newton’s dynamics and Maxwell’s electromagnetism we had everything covered. Prominent scientists solemnly announced the end of physics.

There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
– Lord Kelvin (1900)
Then a few tiny discrepancies between theory and experiment were noted and as scientists explored them, they came upon the previously hidden realm of atomic and relativistic physics, and with it technologies that have put their stamp on the twentieth century.

Albert Einstein believed that the final resting place of every theory is as a special case of a broader one. Indeed, he spent the last decades of his life searching for a unified theory that would have transcended the discoveries he made as a young man. The quest for such a grand unifying theory goes on.

In the next post in the series, I’ll consider some distinguished models of religious provenance, and explain why I think they needn’t duck evidentiary tests any more than science models do.

Religion and Science[All 20 posts of this series have now been collected in a free ebook: Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship. If you enjoyed this series please let me know at breakingranks.net. My most recent book, The Rowan Tree: A Novel,  explores  the personal and political ramifications of my ideas as part of the coming of age of America in an era of global partnerships. The Rowan Tree is available as an ebook or in print format.]

Originally posted to Robert Fuller on Thu Jun 28, 2012 at 05:38 PM PDT.

Also republished by Spiritual Organization of Unapologetic Liberals at Daily Kos.

EMAIL TO A FRIEND X
Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags

?

More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (5+ / 0-)

    Continue the conversation at http://www.breakingranks.net

    by Robert Fuller on Thu Jun 28, 2012 at 05:38:56 PM PDT

  •  YO RESCUE RANGERS! (3+ / 0-)

    If ever there was a diary that deserved to be rescued to Rec, this one sure counts!

    It got lost amidst the excitement of the health care discussions, but deals with some truly core elements of progressive philosophy: questioning the given assumptions, developing skepticism for revealed truths, and the dynamics between science & religion, discovery & stasis.  

    The is foundational stuff.  It needs to be seen & discussed.  (I originally missed it because I was out running around with a friend.)

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Fri Jun 29, 2012 at 07:52:34 AM PDT

  •  question reality >> question authority. (3+ / 0-)

    Questioning the "consensus reality" is the fastest route toward questioning the established authority.  

    For me the route was originally via questioning the moral and ethical assumptions of the culture, from the perspective of a combination of a clear grasp of my own moral sensibilities, and a strong sense of consistency, and parents who raised me to think for myself.  This stuff came up first at a ridiculously young age, but it would not surprise me if it did likewise for many others.

    The place where I started questioning the consensus reality itself is still to this day taboo in the dominant culture, even (and in some cases "especially") among people who are dedicated to scientific rationalism.  Few mental fetters are quite so confining as "prior plausibility," aka "a-priori thinking," aka "it can't exist, therefore it doesn't exist."  But when observations contradict theory, the thing to do is chuck the theory and keep observing.  This also came up at a ridiculously young age, and I was able to observe it do so for others, and the way they responded to the re-imposition of consensus reality on their thinking.  

    How it is that we ever make progress against the inertia of established ideas, should be the central focus of the study of history, rather than the endless tales of conquest and domination and exploitation that seem to pass as the skeleton upon which the body of human history is built.  

    "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

    by G2geek on Fri Jun 29, 2012 at 08:06:27 AM PDT

    •  "How it is that we ever make progress …? (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      G2geek, Joy of Fishes

      "How it is that we ever make progress against the inertia of established ideas" would make a good book title. And the examples of where and how this occurred would be informative and inspiring to would-be consensus busters.

      Continue the conversation at http://www.breakingranks.net

      by Robert Fuller on Fri Jun 29, 2012 at 09:46:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  shorter version, "Progress against inertia." (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Joy of Fishes

        There is something to be said for healthy skepticism, thoughtful conservatism, and respect for traditions.  But not to the extent of denying the reality of observables or their logical implications, and not as a rationalization for the will to power that is the usual cause.  

        "Minus two votes for the Democrat" equals "plus one vote for the Republican." Arithmetic doesn't care about your feelings.

        by G2geek on Fri Jun 29, 2012 at 02:59:22 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  No absolutes. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    G2geek

    I liked this very much.  Thank you.

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site