[This is the 9th in the series Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship.]
Not infrequently we sense our own mistakes at about the same time others do. Why is it so difficult to acknowledge errors publicly? It’s because we fear that admitting to imperfection will expose us to indignity, if not outright rejection.
But, the most successful modelers have usually found ways to admit their errors—at least to themselves—and move on. Niels Bohr prided himself on making his mistakes faster than others. He also held that the opposite of any deep truth is also a deep truth, and would routinely invite people to imagine the opposite of their own pet theories and beliefs. And, after they’d done that, then to imagine the opposite of the opposite, which need not necessarily return them to their starting point.
People capable of handling political differences, artistic ambiguities, personal disagreements, scientific discrepancies, philosophical paradoxes, and identity crises are the opposite of ideologues. They cultivate an equanimity and detachment, and let go of personal preferences, self-righteousness, and blame. Mature modelers are problem-solvers or artists in search of a synthesis that satisfies all parties or, after internalization, the contrary voices sounding in their own heads.
Each person has a piece of the truth, but no one has the whole of it. The first step to a broader truth is to take a stand strongly for our own piece of it, and then to engage in principled struggle with those who disagree. If we listen, more truth emerges from the struggle.Learning to see science models as provisional has resulted in previously unimaginable technological and economic gains. A parallel transformation in which we open ourselves to modifications of our personal beliefs will do likewise for global peace, social harmony, political partnership, and personal development.
– paraphrase of Gandhi’s truth-seeking strategy
Models have the extraordinary property of shielding the dignity of individuals who espouse them. You can champion a model that turns out to be wrong, but that does not make you less worthy.
Moreover, models aim to reconcile all points of view, to account for everyone’s perceptions, and to validate everyone’s experience. In short, a good model is a synthesis (not a compromise) that makes everyone right in at least some respect. Needless to say, when no one feels a loss of face, when everyone’s dignity survives a conflict, the chances of the various parties working together in the aftermath are much improved.
While there’s no denying that we need working beliefs, we can get along quite nicely without absolutes. We need only resist elevating beliefs into eternal verities. To know who we are does not mean we know who we’ll become.
Although Bohr and Einstein disagreed on quantum theory, their dialogue is as exemplary for its respectfulness as it is famous for delineating a divide in the road of human thought. The jury is still out on the substance of their disagreement.Moral codes are prescriptive behavioral models and, like all models, they evolve. This does not mean they’re arbitrary or even “relativist” in the sense that “anything goes.” That morals lack universality and infallibility does not mean we are free to ignore them where they do apply—just as the inapplicability of Newtonian mechanics in the atomic realm does not render Newton’s laws inapplicable to planets and projectiles. On the contrary, in its applicable domain a particular principle—scientific or moral—will remain as valid as ever. Making such distinctions is part of learning to live without certainty, to inhabit a post-fundamentalist world.
The truth is we’ve been living without absolutes from the start. There really never were any, but until now we’ve needed to believe in them much as children fix on certain beliefs while they get their bearings. With adolescence, we temper these beliefs, and with maturity we can let go of belief in belief itself.
In the realm beyond belief, everything looks a bit different. That’s why I was thrown off balance when I stumbled upon this terrain as a teen in my bedroom. At first you feel unmoored; then you smell freedom. Not freedom to do anything, but enough freedom from conventional wisdom to question dogma and loosen its shackles, if not escape its confines.
As we come to see ourselves as separate from, and senior to, our beliefs, we realize that we’ll survive a change in them. They’re our servants, not our master.
It is upon on the neutral ground beyond belief that science and religion can meet, do meet, and in truth have always met, protestations of the authorities notwithstanding. On this common ground, where evidence is King—and where, if the evidence itself is in dispute, the appeal is to evidence about evidence rather than to dogma—science and religion can build a beautiful friendship.
[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.]