Saturday, June 30, 2007

Beyond belief

Successful science requires imagination, not just a piling up of facts. What keeps science from being no more than imagination is its critical aspect, a willingness to place one's own theories on the line and put them to the test of evidence and logic.

In 1644, at the time modern science was born, the poet John Milton penned his Areopagitica, one of the first and still one of the finest defenses of freedom of thought and publishing in the English language. Rejecting the Platonic view of knowledge as an infallible super-rational, super-sensible intuition, Milton saw the partiality of each person, each idea, each point of view, and the inescapable necessity of debate and criticism in the search for truth:
Where there is much desire to learn, there of necessity will be much arguing, much writing, many opinions; for opinion in good men is but knowledge in the making ....

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial is by what is contrary.
Neither can our understanding of good be separated from our knowledge of evil. It is pointless to preach the former with no awareness of the latter:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche [the soul] as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world .... When God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing.
Religious strictures against idolatry remind us of the impossibility of objectifying the divine or the totality of creation. But what religions have never adequately appreciated is that belief itself is problematic. Belief tends to objectify what resists objectification; it wants to turn the divine into an object of worship, not realizing that the divine isn't an object at all. Belief systems have always been Achilles' heel of religion. Belief, like false representations of gods, imposes a preconceived box on a realm that cannot be boxed.

This conflict has been variously characterized as a war between science and religion, between matter and spirit, between body and soul, or between mind and senses. Confronted with this history, we come to terms with humanity’s true original sin, the sin of shoe-horning, of Procrustes and his bed, of forcing round pegs into square holes.

Rationalist criticism of religion can be obtuse, blind to the truth a religious belief or practice points toward. But then again, religious belief can all too easily blind itself and become credulity and cruel superstition.

Forced to choose, we face a choice between the flight of the spirit and the ready-made boxes too small to contain it. Religion has often been turned into such a container, but self-imposed prisons have been made of anti-religion as well, of science, philosophy, art, and ideology. All are impairments of the spirit.

Like great art, science doesn’t preach; it shows. It leaves observers, critics, and later generations to draw their own, sometimes unexpected, conclusions.

If the heart of science is its quest for precision, consistency, and cutting away the false, skepticism - without cynicism - is its soul. The skepticism of science extends to beliefs, prejudices, unwarranted assumptions, and its own dearest theories - Milton's trial by what is contrary. Belief can delay this critical examination and pollute the uninhabited dimensions of thought, cluttering up the view. Belief speaks from narrow intellectualizing. A probing skepticism acknowledges the limitations of our minds and instead addresses us existentially, faced with an open and never-complete knowledge of our world.

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