Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Fictional Conversation

For about a year, I've wanted to share and write about my newfound interest in religion, nature, animals, science, and all sorts of things that never interested me before. I tried the essay format, but so far I haven't quite succeeded in writing anything interesting. It takes time, I guess, to find the appropriate language, words and tone. It's always a work in progress. But here is an initial attempt to discuss religion and science, using two individuals. The two individuals are merely puppets to get some points across; it's very artificial for sure, but still felt better than an essay. Not sure how this is going to read -- but how does one know unless one tries?

“… but you still believe there is no conflict between religion and science?”

“It’s all about how you interpret it. It just depends on what you call ‘religion’.”

“To me, religion is belief in God, and that’s pretty clear cut.”

“Well, alright, let that be our definition of religion then: belief in God. It’s a problematic definition, but we can work with it.”

“Good. Now tell me how you can reconcile science with religion. To me science is about evidence and cultivating doubt, whereas belief in God is not.”

“Yes, that’s true. Science certainly provides more evidence than religion and also – if the scientists are honest – allows doubts and failures. You turn on the switch on and there is light – that’s proof that science works. The evidence is there in virtually all aspects of life, which we now take for granted…” 

“Whereas religion gets away with unverifiable claims: the presence of a soul, someone was enlightened thousands of years ago, or someone walked on water, or someone lifted a mountain…”

“But you cannot disprove these claims; these things could have happened. It would be unscientific to negate these possibilities outright, even if our current laws of physics suggest otherwise. A more apt way to phrase it would be to say that religious miracles, unlike everyday scientific miracles, cannot be demonstrated on a regular basis. You just take them on faith, which is really a blind faith, rather than saying: It could have happened but I cannot say anything for sure; there is no evidence.”

“Exactly! In science you have the burden of proof, whereas the burden of proof is not there in religion. One promotes skepticism, the other asks for blind belief no matter what. And then exploits that belief to create wars, divisions, ideologies. To me that’s an irreconcilable difference.”

“Well, science, if not practiced well, can also divide, create wars, ideologies and destruction. We humans are the problem, though we like to play the secular/scientific versus religious game. I have a more moderate view on the debate between science and religion. I think of it in terms of degrees of objectivity. In a relative sense, yes, science is more objective than religion, and there is no disputing that. But it would be incorrect to call science the ultimate truth or theory. We can instead call it the most objective truth we have, or what humans have collectively and gradually come up with, using the tools of logic and mathematics.”

“So there is something over and above?”

“I don’t know. Good science represents the limit – and it’s an ever expanding limit – of what humans can think of and explain. Beyond it, who knows what’s there. I simply don’t know. And that’s important: I don’t know – that space of not knowing is very important. Socrates said something about not knowing....” 

“I think he said: I know only that I know nothing…”

“Right. In my view, not knowing is where religion begins. Knowledge often leads to arrogance, but not knowing and being sincere and honest in accepting that you do not know is humility. This is the same humility that most of the world’s religions ask us to cultivate. But in general – and almost no one is immune from this – the more you know the more you think you can control, and you become egocentric and protective of your knowledge. In this aspect, science has a serious downside: the ability to know the laws of nature and exploit the natural world to suit human needs makes us feel supremely confident; we feel can achieve anything. We look only at what we have achieved, and feel tremendously proud as a species, but we ignore what we do not know at all.”

“But our lives are better…”

 “Materially better, yes, for now, but sooner or later, you run into a wall. Reality doesn’t quite function the way humans want. No amount of knowledge can capture the ever changing nature of reality. What the future has in store we have absolutely no idea. The universe and even events in our solar system may have some unpleasant surprises in store for us. Science is the effort to find answers, but no matter how deep you go, quantum mechanics, evolutionary theory and what not, you always reach a point where you do not know anymore. So you stop for a moment there and acknowledge, ‘Wow, this is too vast, too big and too complex, for my puny mind to understand.’ It’s the Great Unknown.”

“I understand that. But that’s still very different from belief in God…”

“Is it really? That’s why I said it is all in the interpretation. For me, the Great Unknown is what you can label, for the purposes of convenience, as God. I believe in this Great Unknown; I don’t know what it is, but it is there…”

“Well you know, you are sounding very mystical now!”

 “Why not! A scientific pursuit is really a mystical pursuit. I start with the feeling, ‘I want to know’ and you do get to know more, and you are able to explain more. It is a great feeling – you can compare it to the religious joy that a pilgrim or a monk or a yogi might feel. Einstein’s theories of relativity are aesthetically beautiful theories – they say it is the most elegant use of mathematics to show the intertwined nature of space and time. Darwin’s ideas make you feel connected to every living creature in earth – by his thesis, the animals and birds you see around you are your cousins! That promotes a wonderful feeling of unity! At the same time, there still are unanswered questions and new questions, and you realize you can’t know everything. That does not mean you stop – you can be thankful for the knowledge you have and you can keep the search going – but the illusion that you will know all begins to go away.”

 “Alright. Your ‘religion’ -- if you can call it that -- is quite different. Something like a poetic impulse with scientific bits thrown in. I don't have an issue with it. My main issue is with the monotheistic faiths that claim that there is a Creator, or that the world has been intelligently designed. I feel these faiths are quite arrogant – they prescribe that there is only one way and no other way, and in doing so cause all sorts of problems.”

 “Saying that there is only one way and no other way implies that the person who is making that very strong claim has complete knowledge – wouldn’t that be the opposite of humility? Is it possible for someone to claim, with tremendous sincerity and honesty and without a trace of doubt, that there is only one way to God and that all other ways lead to hell? And as for the existence of a Creator, one cannot reject the possibility: no one can disprove something that so far not been seen. But it does not matter anyway. Whether a Creator exists or not is irrelevant; the Creation exists – by that I mean this universe, this earth we live in, the sun, the moon, our senses and our thoughts which allow us to experience the world, they all exist, or at least seem to be vivid and real to us. That’s all that matters, and that itself is a miracle of sorts. This is actually an amazing fact: the Creation is everywhere and all around us, this table here that my eyes allow me to see, this chair whose solidity I can feel, this fruit that I can smell and taste! It makes you ask the question: What is all this? That itself can impart a sense of wonder.”


bikster said...

Hey Hari - I felt like I was reading Eckhart Tolle. :) He uses the question/answer style as you would know. Very interesting and glad that you've been on this subject.. Btw the fictional conversation i think is no longer fictional because it seems to have actually occurred between two voices within you :)..

dynasty said...
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longjie said...

"It is a great feeling – you can compare it to the religious joy that a pilgrim or a monk or a yogi might feel."

I certainly would have disagreed with that and sided with descartes in his assertion that "physicality, spirituality, mind and body belonged to different realms of reality." That is, before learning that astronauts experience a euphoria akin to Buddhist Monks after seeing Earth from space.

spirituality is a curious thing. our brains are clearly wired for it. yet we continuously try to analyze it in a way that it refuses to be measured in.

conrius said...

I had some time today, so re-read some of your older articles too.You should find time to write again. Perhaps the blog was just a passing phase, perhaps the inherent motivation to share a story or a thought isn't.

Yueran Zhuo said...

Hey Hari,

I just noticed you have a blog. These are such nice articles. Why do you stop updatng it? I am hoping that one day I can keep a blog like yours:)