Friday, September 20, 2013

Essay: Religion, science, and our quest for truth

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Religion, science, and our quest for truth

From the book: Chum for Thought: Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters by David Satterlee

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Chum For Thought:
Throwing Ideas into Dangerous Waters

Religion, science, and our quest for truth

Both religion and science build theoretical models to explain observations. Sometimes the models work, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes sacrificing infants to Baal brings productive crops, sometimes bleeding a patient breaks a fever. Most cultures have rejected both of these models (religious and scientific, respectively). Even having a thoroughly-consistent theory does not establish truth. Traditional Chinese Medicine successfully treats "spleen deficiency" for problems totally unrelated to our anatomical spleen's function. Both religious and secular authorities have found themselves needing to adjust their accepted doctrine.

Sometimes religious ideas lead secular as in the Genesis record of the sequence of life’s appearance on earth, or the sanitary laws of the Israelites coming out of Egypt. Also, science is seriously beginning to explore the efficacy of some types of prayer. Sometimes secular ideas lead religion. In 2000, The Catholic Church apologized
for many errors over the last two millennia, including the trial of Galileo. It does not seem safe to assume that any religious or scientific profession has sufficient authority to establish immutable truth.

I would have to concede that if there were an omnipotent creator, that one would, by definition, have the capacity to determine absolute truth—a truth that would probably be incomprehensible to mortals. I certainly don’t feel like I have the capacity to make strong assertions about any truth; just ask any two observers of a traffic accident to describe what happened. How could anybody be sure that any statement is true regardless of its support? Although I think highly of evidence, accuracy, and “truth,” it does not seem reasonable to expect any person to aspire to or hold absolute truth.

As for synthesizing science and religion, making a mince of things will certainly not create coherence. Artists know better than to mix all their pretty colors overmuch; they lose all character in an uninteresting darkness. On the other hand, some openness to sample the ideas of others has definite merit. For one thing, it is unlikely that anyone is talented enough to be completely wrong. Perhaps, like in our traffic accident, disputing observers viewed things from different angles or proceeded from different background experiences or expectations. For another, each person derives or assigns meaning from their individual interpretations. Understanding their perspectives improves our ability to work together without prejudice and fear.

So, we all build theoretical models to hang our observations and understandings upon. We should try to be flexible enough to repeatedly readjust those models to accommodate “better” understandings. We should be realistic enough to expect that there will always be areas of ambiguity and unresolved contradiction. But, none of this should ever give cause to quit seeking.

Now, one neighbor says that every moment is pre-ordained and immutable. My other neighbor says that we all create different realities every moment. The Cheshire cat says, “I am just as real to me as you are real to you.” For now, I think I prefer to have something to push against when I move and feel at liberty to choose a direction. I perceive myself to be an actor in this comedy and prefer to enjoy the joke. At the same time, why not take up a meditative practice? It sounds like good science: repeat the prescribed procedure and expect to produce the predicted result. Enlightenment to the realization of nonduality might be instructive. Besides, I’ve got an agreement with my son that the last one to levitate has to pay for dinner.