Making Reality Behave, #2: Useful Fictions and the Scientific Method

Making Reality Behave, #2: Useful Fictions and the Scientific Method

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“Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary…” — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 138 (23 May 1912, Cambridge, MA)

There is much talk about the scientific method as a paradigm for acquiring knowledge about Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s a good paradigm, one that is used prescriptively in the Bahá’í community as part of the culture of learning promoted by the Universal House of Justice. But I’m finding more and more that the scientific method is at least as vague a notion (or at least one with as many variations) as faith. Stephen Friberg’s series on the Enlightenment goes into that in some depth—in fact, he gave a presentation at our local Bahá’í Center a while back on the evolution of the scientific model.

I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it is we mean by a scientific method. Some people (not scientists) think that science is what is consciously performed in the controlled environment of a lab. Some think science is just a collection of “facts”. There is also the notion that any knowledge worth having is scientific knowledge and that only science (or math) can make meaningful and worthwhile pronouncements about this worthwhile knowledge.

This last is a staggering claim that is disproved so often on any given day that I am surprised anyone continues to argue it.

Science and Religions ProcessThe scientific model, in its broadest sense, is a way of looking at the world. It’s a way of observing reality, gathering evidence, reasoning out what that evidence suggests, arriving at a theory and then seeking further evidence for or against that theory. It requires floating ideas, testing them against reality and seeing what works and what sticks.

Many folks place faith and the scientific method at opposite ends of a continuum, whereas I find them compatible tools for world-building. Faith, to me, and to a great many other people, is what happens when we organize our world view around the way we have found the world to work. Science is based, for example, in the faith that the universe is a place we can understand.To others—notably, some of my anti-theist confreres—the word “faith” comes with the flavorful “blind” appended. Given the Bahá’í Faith’s emphasis on the acquisition of knowledge and its ideal of synergy between the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual, blind faith is no virtue.

To me, the affirmation “God exists” is a reasonable statement inferred from the evidence at hand—which includes such things as the nature of the universe and human intelligence, the historical and scriptural record and a variety of other sources—and an application of the rational faculty.

I’m often asked to produce a single scientific proof of the existence of God, but is that a reasonable request, given that none of the people who have so far demanded that proof were able to produce a single scientific proof for anything they accepted as fact, either (i.e. evolution or the existence of a particular subatomic particle).

Mathematician William Hatcher says of this that:

“It would be a mistake to say that we hold such a statement to be true because of reason, or because of intuition, or because of experience.  In the final analysis, we hold something as true only because of everything else which we accept as true, that is, because this something is consistent with our experience and understanding of life as a whole.” — The Science of Religion

So, the statement “God exists” is something I accept as true because of everything else that I accept as true and because it is consistent with my experience and understanding of life as a whole.

black-hole21.gifThis is only part of the issue that my anti-theist friends have with faith as opposed to science (which, in my neck of the woods, it is not). Polemicist Christopher Hitchens, for example, takes a dim view of the language of scripture when it comes to describing natural phenomena. He reads the Genesis story and—first insisting that it be taken literally—next insists that it be taken as an inherently religious view of how the world was created. Are there Christians who take Genesis literally or materially? Certainly, but they are not the majority of Christians and should no more set the tone for how Christianity as a whole is viewed than people who think a black hole is literally a hole in space.

We humans have always used our imaginations and metaphors to describe the things we observed that stayed just beyond our reach. We have always tried to paint pictures of what we think is happening and then adjusted those pictures as new information emerged.

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Both religion and science use metaphors to help us grasp concepts and realities to which we don’t have direct access. When physicist Juan Maldacena talks about super string theory, he’s not really talking about strings as we understand them in the temporal world. He’s trying to get us to understand that in some way the structure of subatomic reality bears a conceptual resemblance to string. When Jesus talks about fig trees not being able to grow thistles and thistles not being able to grow figs, He’s not talking about either fig trees or thistles. He’s prescribing how humans ought to use observed phenomena to build a model of reality.

And that’s for next time: Logic lessons from scripture.

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