Aug 10, 2008

"Just Ask This Scientician"

I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see a universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws, but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds cannot grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations.

-- Albert Einstein

I stumbled on this very compelling post in Wolf & Goddess, on science, atheism, and Richard Dawkins.

Yesterday Wolf and I were in a book shop and I saw Richard Dawkins‘ book The God Delusion. The title scared me, I leafed through it with ill-concealed hysteria and asked Wolf if he found the title sad or threatening. Wolf is grounded in his faith (unconventional, he is no monotheiest) and moves easily past naysayers. I fear contamination. A guy, a clever guy, a scientist, publishes a book asserting God is nothing more than a dangerous delusion and I linger, fearfully - wanting to read it, and yet not.

It is like passing the scene of a car accident, not wanting to look and yet wanting to. You want to look and see people ashen faced and trembling, lighting cigarettes and saying “what a relief I could have been killed”. You want to see survivors not corpses. I want to read The God Delusion and survive. I don’t want to be contaminated with even more doubt.

While doubt, as such, is not my issue, I can relate to the agita atheists like Dawkins inspire. The smugness. The certainty. Why is it that so many atheists come across as more militantly dogmatic than Christian fundamentalists? It strikes me as ironic... but, it's really not. Human beings crave certainty. We long for clean, straight lines in our reality. Throughout much of human history we satisfied that need with religious authority. Today we satisfy it with science. Science has become religion.

A short while ago, I was listening to this interview with Brian Weiss. In it, he shares his recollection of an exchange he had with Carl Sagan. These two men of science butted heads about the validity of Weiss's renowned work with reincarnation and regression therapy. Sagan, not surprisingly to those familiar with Sagan, was initially very dismissive. But Weiss pointed out to him that he was dismissing something without actually looking at the body of research Weiss has accrued -- the documentation of people who found historical records confirming their past identities, the cases of people speaking in foreign languages they did not know, and that his regressed patients get better. Sagan admitted, according to Weiss, something fairly extraordinary. "Brian," he said, "I've not been acting as a scientist, have I?" (Weiss discusses this incident and explains his own beliefs that science requires an "open mind" beginning at the end of video 6 in the series.)

Adoration of the Rising Sun in the Form of the Falcon Re-Horakhty, New Kingdom, c. 1150 BC (Papyrus)
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This is my biggest problem with both practitioners and laymen in this new discipline of scientism. They view science as an entity, an authority, and a kind of unassailable "book of facts." Anyone who thinks of science as something that establishes "facts" is neither practicing, nor honoring the scientific method. Science provides few definitive answers. It is, rather, a method of asking questions. Good scientists are involved in a process of discovery. They are not absolutist.

A linearized, pragmatic scheme of the four points above is sometimes offered as a guideline for proceeding:[25]

1. Define the question
2. Gather information and resources (observe)
3. Form hypothesis
4. Perform experiment and collect data
5. Analyze data
6. Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
7. Publish results
8. Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

Step 8 in that list is fairly important. Science, far from providing final answers, is constantly revising itself. A great many "facts" that we learned in school have been adapted and changed. Just recently, for instance, I read that falcons can no longer be considered close relatives of hawks and other raptors. They are, rather, close cousins of parrots.

When a falcon swoops from the sky to seize its fleeing prey, no one would mistake the sleek predator for a gaudy parrot.

Yet the secret kinship of falcons and parrots is one of many surprises in a landmark genetic study of 169 bird species being published by Field Museum researchers.

. . .

The analysis also showed falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other hunters such as hawks and eagles. If true, the finding would mean that falcons do not even belong in the scientific order originally named for them.[emphasis mine]

Science provides an ever evolving body of knowledge. Not only are scientific findings and categories being constantly revised, there is much that remains unknown in various scientific fields. Otherwise, a lot of scientists in a wide range of fields would be out of jobs. And yet, many practitioners of this new religion of scientism tell us that much that we observe and experience cannot exist because it cannot be clearly and consistently observed and there is no scientific evidence for it. But the world turned on its axis before we knew that it was round, or had any conception of an axis.

Bumblebee Harmony I

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In recent years, for instance, there has been a good deal of breakthrough research into insect aerodynamics. But, throughout much of the modern age, it has been a mystery.

Traditionally, scientists assumed that the basic physics of insect flight resembled the basic physics of human aviation.

For example, there's an urban legend that many decades ago, scientists analyzed the plump bodies and stubby wings of bumblebees and concluded they were too heavy to fly. Over the years, during repeated retellings of this story in schoolyards and barrooms, it acquired a punch line: "But bees don't know they can't fly, so they fly anyway."

The urban legend is based on fact: A bumblebee study was conducted in 1934 by the European scientists Antoine Magnan and Andre Saint-Lague. They applied mathematical analysis and known principles of flight to calculate that bee flight was "impossible," say insect-flight researchers Douglas L. Altshuler, Michael Dickinson and three colleagues at Caltech and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in an article for today's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Since this time," the authors note, "bees have symbolized both the inadequacy of aerodynamic theory as applied to animals and the hubris with which theoreticians analyze the natural world."

Nothing in the natural world needs the imprimatur of our scientific institutions to function. Nor, does anything in the unseen or metaphysical world. For those of us who have seen glimpses of what lies beyond the veil, it is every bit as real as the flight of bumblebees.

None of this is intended as a disparagement of science; only to the practice of and belief in science as somehow conclusive and absolute, and the negation of all that lies undiscovered. The greatest scientists have been those who were open to the mysteries. Lahirondelle of Wolf & Goddess closes her rumination with an Einstein quote; the same quote alluded to by Weiss in the interview linked above.

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.

-- Albert Einstein

Yes, Mr. Weiss. Einstein was almost certainly a mystic.

-- The title quotation is from "The Simpsons," episode "Lisa the Vegetarian."
-- Books by Brian Weiss can be found in the bookstore in the Past Life Work section.

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