A friendly reminder: Science isn’t reality. Reality is reality.

Woman on bike looking at mountains

Connor Wood

Last week, I reported on a bit of research that suggested, in part, that many religious nonbelievers come to their atheistic worldviews after being convinced that science explains the world better than religion does. But despite its admittedly jaw-dropping explanatory power, science does, in fact, have its limitations. Science cannot explain or predict everything (sorry, E.O. Wilson). These limitations, however, don’t necessarily imply that atheists or agnostics should become theists. Instead, they imply that we should reside more fully in our own bodies – the subjects of the rich sensory impressions and first-person experiences that are ultimately the source of all knowledge.

First, let’s get the usual objections out of the way. So science is imperfect. But isn’t that only an artifact of today’s limited technology, methods, and theories? Assuming constant advancements in our technological know-how and theoretical acumen, won’t science someday predict and/or explain absolutely everything – consciousness, biological death, dark matter, American Idol, what will happen to the weather in Buffalo if a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing,* the whole kaboodle?

No. Seriously, science can’t explain or predict everything. And it never will. This is not because the universe is mystical (although it could also be that, if you’re into such things), but because it is literally impossibly complex.

Scientific knowledge is theoretical knowledge. As philosophers of science such as Mary Hesse and Nancy Cartwright† have pointed out, scientific knowledge relies heavily on models and analogies, and the theorems that drive any model are necessarily simplified compared with real-world scenarios. The result is that any scientific model, theory, or representation is always imperfectly applicable to the real world.

WAIT: READ THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH BEFORE GETTING ALL HUFFY

This does not mean that scientific theories are somehow false. In general, they are not. Clearly, Einstein’s gravitational constant, or the electron-shell model of the atom, or Darwin’s theory of natural selection, capture something quantifiably real about the world. So good theories are retained for a reason: they work.

But of course, scientific laws and theories are, by definition, generalizations (as my friend and professor Bob Neville recently pointed out in a conversation). They attempt to provide general rules that shape and inform all the particular events in the world. Newton’s inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, for example, predicts what will happen if you drop a bowling ball out of an airplane,** but it also applies to any other particular instance of gravity drawing two bodies toward each other: a blue-green planet in Andromeda orbiting a red giant, a piece of old newspaper floating to the ground after being whipped out of the landfill by the wind, a Somali immigrant in a high-rise in Minneapolis walking down the 30 flights of stairs one footfall after another. Each of these extremely particular things is covered under Newton’s law. Gravity’s sprawling generality neatly fits these particulars.

But – and this is the key – it only covers them partially. Each of these particular events is also guided by countless other laws: laws of thermodynamics, of fluid dynamics, of social dynamics, cognition, physiology, and meteorology. And plenty of others that I wouldn’t know to mention.

Consider the Somali immigrant in Minneapolis, slowly walking down the stairs toward the street. Let’s say he’s a man named Abshir. Abshir arrived in Minnesota in 1997 and has a wife, Filsan, and a 12-year-old son, Galad. Abshir has a tiny a limp due to a soccer injury he suffered as a young man, right after he arrived in Minneapolis – he played with other new immigrants on a pitch in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, overlooking the roaring freeway.

Right now, Abshir is walking down the stairs of his high-rise public housing tower instead of taking the elevator because someone in the building has pulled the fire alarm, and the elevators are frozen. The ringing of the alarm is echoing through the narrow chamber of the 30-story stairwell.

This is a science blog, but I’m getting all literary and narrative on you for a reason. This is to drive home the particularity of real life: Abshir is a particular person in a unique and unrepeatable situation, and there are no theories, no matter how complex, that can tell you exactly where each of Abshir’s feet will fall as he trudges the stairs, that can explain the ultimate origin of each of his thoughts and anxieties as he makes his way downward, or that can predict the precise millisecond when he will emerge from the dim, horrifically loud stairwell onto the sunlit street.

Again, this is not because there are no theories or models that address these questions. There are. Neuroscience could look at patterns of neural firing in his frontal cortex, parietal cortex, and cerebellum to get a pretty good idea of how he is negotiating the physical task of walking. Cognitive science and psychology could map his thought patterns and come up with a model for his cognitive habits, allowing an improbably well-informed researcher to make predictions of what Abshir might be thinking.

But because real life is so stupendously complex, the causal chains leading to any particular occurrence, thought, or movement are, functionally, so vast and intricate as to be finally invulnerable to theoretical capture. This applies to human behavior and physical systems alike. You cannot gather up enough theories and models to predict the full reality of the world.

The physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne paints an exceptionally clear picture of life’s ultimate invulnerability to theory. As a physical system, Polkinghorne claims, reality is so surpassingly complex and sensitive that it is literally impossible to precisely predict the outcome of even the smallest events:

Molecules in a gas behave, in many ways, like small colliding billiard balls. After less than a microsecond, fifty or more collisions have taken place for each molecule. After even so few collisions the resulting outcome is so sensitive that it would be affected by the variation in the gravitational field due to an extra electron on the other side of the universe.

Uh, wow. Remember the butterfly effect: very small initial changes in a complex system lead to vastly differing final outcomes at a global or higher level. The change in the position of a single molecule of gas could, literally, magnify upward to change how a weather system moves, what decision a person a person makes, even whether nations decide to go to war. And each millisecond, molecules and interactions across the universe are being affected by the most unimaginably minute influences. This means that, literally, the only model that could predict or explain real events with absolute precision would be a model the size of the universe itself. 

Obviously, this is impractical.

Just as it is silly to create a useful map of the United States that’s scaled 1:1 (for one thing, you would need a really big chunk of real estate to store it††), it doesn’t make any sense to imagine a scientific model that could account for every factor that might affect the outcome of any physical interaction. To be useful, models must be simplifications: they must be maps, not territory. And as Polkinghorne reminds us, the territory of the universe is pretty damn big.

This doesn’t mean science is a failed endeavor. It’s clearly not. (Citation: we have been to the moon.) But it means that the models, theories, and generalizations that are the tools of science can never grip the world perfectly. Reality will always, in the final analysis, slip out of the predictive and explanatory straitjacket of human science.

Now, I am not setting you up in order to say, “Therefore, God.” That would be a dumb thing to do. It would also be intellectually indefensible. Instead, I am merely cautioning that because science consists of mental and theoretical abstractions, we have an obligation to return as often as possible to the basic source of all our information about reality: the experience of being a body living on the earth.

What do I mean? Go outside. Watch the people walking past, or the clouds streaming across the sky. Pay attention to the details: the feeling of the air on your skin, the rippling of the leaves of a tree in the wind, the smells of the earth or the city or the sea. Descend into your evolutionarily produced, carbon-based animal body and actually feel things.

As you watch the mundane happenings of the world pass by your eyes, realize that not a single theory or model, no algorithm of science, will ever predict the precise contours of the cloud hovering above the building nearby, or the exact moment when a young woman walks by holding a red purse and closes her eyes in the sunlight. Reality, in other words, is spontaneous, as the philosopher David Abram has pointed out. If you settle into your senses, you’ll recognize this. And it will be liberating – extraordinarily so.

I’m not going soft or hippy-dippy on you. This isn’t woo-woo stuff. It is the basic experience of perception. What I’m saying is that the epistemological foil of science is not religion, as so many people erroneously think. Instead, the complementary opposite of science is embodiment.

Science, as a human project, abstracts from the world and produces generalities. These generalities are extremely useful and predictive; they capture real regularities in the world. But in order to do its abstractive work, science requires us to step away from the raw experience of living so that we can reflect on it. It puts the immediacy of living on “pause,” and in so doing breaks our connection with actual reality. In return, it gives us very useful and fantastically powerful models and ideas about the world.

But models and ideas are not reality. Only reality is reality. To recognize that, we need to be intimately acquainted with our bodies and their various sense perceptions, with the spontaneity and lack of predictability that defines genuine sensory experience. Go sit somewhere outside and listen to and watch the world, and you’ll see what I mean. Don’t get trapped in the models that science produces, in other words. Use the models. But don’t let them use you. This holds for atheists, religious believers, agnostics, and everyone around and in between.

_________

Note: The French mathematician Pierre Laplace once imagined a demon that knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe. This demon could then produce a perfect set of predictions for what would happen in every succeeding instant, everywhere, for eternity. I’m arguing that we are not Laplace’s demon and could never be. Now stop reading and go outside already.

_________

* It will snow.

† No, not that Nancy Cartwright.

** If you try this, do not mention this blog post at your arraignment. Thank you.

†† Such as Siberia, which is closed for most of each year due to weather and would therefore be a frustrating place to keep reference materials.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

    Yes, reality is reality. The way we typically find out about reality is with science, however.

    Science ain’t perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got. Let’s not imagine that the ambiguous claims of religion are somehow more plausible once we realize that science isn’t perfect.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Are you implying that E.O.Wilson said, “Science can explain or predict everything?”

    Could you supply the source?

    I don’t know anyone who holds that position. Could you name one?

    This all sounded very strawmanish!

    Your whole essay seems to be to make the point that “we should reside more fully in our own bodies”. But you are contrasting this to what? To that strawman?

    Look, subjective feelings are fun and great but when they become claims about reality, they should be tested against others.

    If you think that Abshir is a prophet of Allah and clairavoyant, it is time to stop “resid[ing] in [y]our own bod[y]” — it is time to check in with others.

    Subjectivity is unavoidable, it is rich and full. Science has huge limitations but it has great methods to check the limitations of subjectivity. The whole essay to encourage people to wallow in their subjectivity is fine but if they start feeling spirits, demons or gods are talking to them, they need to jump out of their own private minds and check with others — it is time to ask science for some help.

  • connorwood

    > The way we typically find out about reality is with science, however.

    The initial data we have to work with all come from first-person experience. There is no way around this. I’m just saying that we need to check in with that first person fairly regularly in order not to get lost in models and conceptual overlays.

  • connorwood

    > Are you implying that E.O.Wilson said, “Science can explain or predict everything?”

    Wilson’s book “Consilience” is an argument that all knowledge can be unified under the sciences. Wilson is a great scientist, and I really, really respect him. But his scientizing goes too far for me sometimes.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Well, Connor, I have that book, so if you could supply a quote to support your criticism of Wilson, I’d appreciate it.

    In the meantime, here are a few page number with quotes I like:

    8

    The ongoing fragmentation of knowledge and resulting chaos in philosophy are not reflections of the real world but artifacts of scholarship.

    12

    Philosophy, the contemplation of the unknown, is shrinking dominion. We have the common goal of turning as much philosophy as possible into science.

    14

    A balanced perspective cannot be acquired by studying disciplines in pieces but through pursuit of the consilience among them.

    326

    The search for consilience might seem at first to imprison creativity. The opposite is true. A united system of knowledge is the surest means of indentifying the still unexplored domains of reality. It provides a clear map of what is known, and it frames the productive questions for future inquiry.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Conner, you discussed Wilson, but without the source I requested.

    But more importantly, you skipped my main point, so I will copy here again:

    [Your] whole essay to encourage people to wallow in their subjectivity is fine but if they start feeling spirits, demons or gods are talking to them, they need to jump out of their own private minds and check with others — it is time to ask science for some help.

  • connorwood

    Replies to both your comments:

    60: “(The strong form of reductionism) is total consilience, which holds that nature is organized by simple universal laws of physics to which all other laws can eventually be reduced. This transcendental world view is the light and way for many scientific materialists (I admit to being among them).”

    Later in that passage, Wilson does admit that some laws may ultimately be beyond our ability to ever grasp. So I may have been too hard on him, probably for writerly reasons. But his epistemological standpoint is that all phenomena are ultimately vulnerable to scientific analysis. Later in the same book: “it is not enough to say that history unfolds by processes too complex for reductionistic analysis. This is the white flag of the secular intellectual, the lazy modernist equivalent of the Will of God.”

    Note that my position on the complexity of real-world phenomena diverges from Wilson’s significantly.

    Your other point: I am not encouraging people to “wallow in their subjectivity.” You’ll note my considerable respect for science throughout the piece. I am encouraging people to have RECOURSE to their subjectivity in order to avoid mistaking their models and theories about the world for the world itself – a common cognitive error among scientists and laypersons alike.

    On spirits: People who feel as if spirits are talking to them almost invariably live within social worlds that confirm and place constraints on those beliefs. I have been quite surprised at the level of predictive precision that evangelical American Christians use to talk about spiritual experiences; they do in fact confer with one another and make predictions about what can be expected in which spiritual situations, suggesting that they experience some level of feedback from the external non-social and social environments that constrains and shapes their interpretations of their experiences. The result is that neither their spiritual experiences, nor those of virtually any other group, are unconstrained by social consensus. People consistently DO check with other people, and depending on which social worlds they live in, they often find their interpretations corroborated. To make a successful argument that their interpretations are incorrect, you have to chill on merely calling them “delusional” and start engaging their interpretive logic on its own ground.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    @ Connor

    Yes, Wilson is proud of reductionism as a method. I actually think he is right. But the strawman view of reductionism usually is far from accurate. “Reductionism” has actually become an assumed negative attack word among those with a religious bias that I find very often. Religious folks assume it will be universally assumed as negative. Well, I don’t. It is only negative to those that don’t understand the amazingness contained in apparently simple mathematics — with all its unpredictability and more.

    Above and in your post you said that Wilson claims that

    , “Science can explain or predict everything?”

    .

    So, you were not “to hard on him”, you misrepresented him — far worse. You made him say something he has never said and further more, would never say. I’d appreciate if you go back to your post and change this misinformation.

    You keep telling me what Wilson says without quoting. I wish you would quote, because I don’t trust your representation — “writerly reason” or other biases are obviously in play.

    You do understand that reductionist method can reveal algorithms (cellular automaton types) that (like 2nd order equations) are unpredictable. So history may be reducible to principles — albeit unmanageably complex and unpredictable but still mechanistic.

    I don’t know of any scientists who mistake the world for their theories — and certainly not Wilson.

    You said, “People who feel as if spirits are talking to them almost invariably live within social worlds that confirm and place constraints on those beliefs.”

    Yesterday I watched a horrible recent video of villagers accused of being witches (who speak with and deal with spirits) being beaten and burned alive while everyone looked on and cheered. Where are those “constraints”?

    Checking in with your echo-chamber, your fellow bigots and such is one step above personal subjectivity but not much higher. The history of human knowledge has shown effort to build better and better methods to get beyond subjectivity. Sure, it is always a starting point, but when possible, we should check it as high up the chain of evidence testing as we can.

    I think your post here discounts that truth and plays into subjectivity of religious folks saying, “Science over shoots, don’t worry, your god intuitions are good.” Albeit with many more paragraphs, misrepresentations of scientists and other slights of hand.

    – to put my cards on the table.

  • connorwood

    Well, clearly we disagree. You seem also to have missed my direct quotes of Wilson above. I don’t think we’re going to get any further in this discussion, so have a pleasant day.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Yeah, it would be nice to know what we disagree on. I have no problem disagreeing, but I do like clarity.
    You have a wonderful day too.

  • MumbleMumble

    I’m not totally sure what to make of this post. Who is this a friendly reminder to? You open by citing research that argues that atheists are atheists because they are more convinced that science can explain reality better than religion. You then proceed to point out all the limitations of science and how it doesn’t REALLY explain reality. (I’m missing the blog post that points out how religion doesn’t explain anything about reality either.)

    To me, it seems as though you are accepting the scientific research as valid, accepting its premise that atheists favor science over religion, and then are criticizing atheists for their adherence to science. In other words, your “friendly” reminder is directed towards atheists who shouldn’t be putting so much stock into science.

    Your earlier post said “[c]learly, there is something basically human about being religious” (original emphasis). Do you realize how offensive this is? I ignored that line the first time around, but looking back now and seeing your follow-up post, I can only interpret your message as one that is critical towards atheism and gives theism a complete pass. Maybe this was not your intent. If so, I can only suggest you do a better job in the future of presenting a more balanced argument.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Couldn’t agree more: the bias is clear . “Science on Religion” seems a inaccurate — “Religion on Science” seems a more appropriate name for this blog.

  • Jay

    “the complementary opposite of science is embodiment.”

    Never thought of it that way before. Very interesting.

    Also, something that I sometimes bring up when speaking with those in the atheist and agnostic community, one has to consider whether or not an overly scientific mentality is really the best way to consider the existence of God. Someone a few days ago told me that they would believe there was a God if He made a city float in the air and just keep it there or if He parted the Red Sea and kept it that way. I asked why he would believe it was God that did this if it happened. Why not aliens or the government coming up with some new invention? Aren’t those more likely from a scientific mentality than the existence of God (potential physical realities in the world vs. a spiritual reality)? With an overly scientific mentality, there really does seem to be nothing that would make a person believe that there is a God. That is obviously not the case with all, but that does appear to be the case with many.

    Reality is reality. The question is whether science is always the best way to determine reality. I obviously don’t believe that.

  • connorwood

    It was intended as a friendly reminder to everyone, and to myself. I have a scientific outlook on the world, and a tendency to believe overmuch in the models I generate or read about to understand reality. Because science is so effective, and because models can be so convincing, it’s good to remember sometimes to step out of the models and back into living, breathing experience – which is where all the data we use to create models with comes from in the first place.

    Nowhere in this post did I argue that science is inaccurate or misleading, or that it doesn’t explain things. All I said was that science is not reality – science is our systemized ideas about reality. And science is certainly not the sole province of atheism (which I think you seem to imply in your second paragraph). We ALL could use occasional re-immersions in the simple experience of living. Someone who would agree with me would be Sam Harris, who is a dedicated meditator.

    Finally, I have good reasons to say there is something basically human about being religious (depending on how you describe “religious”). This includes cognitive anthropologists like Scott Atran, who is a staunch atheist, and Pascal Boyer, who is even more so. Almost literally every anthropologist out there would agree with me; there are no human groups that do not have spirits, gods, ancestors, and/or rituals that reference spirits or a spiritual or transcendent realm. And many of the earlier theorists who claimed that humans were “homo religiosus” or that religiousness is central to being human, such as Emile Durkheim, were also atheists. You can claim that humans are not natively religious, but anthropologically and historically, you’d be wrong.

    Moreover, it would be committing naturalistic fallacy to assume that because religiousness is natural, it’s also necessarily good. Writers like Ara Norenzayan agree completely with me (or me with them, more accurately) that religion is natural to humanity. But Norenzayan argues that countries like Sweden show that, in certain social and economic conditions, religiosity can be ditched in favor of other social arrangements. So religion may be natural, but obsolete. I think his view is probably mistaken in the case of the Nordic countries, but the fact remains that a LOT of theorists and researchers out there both agree that religion is natural and are themselves atheists, or even activists in the cause of trying to move humanity “beyond” religion.

  • MumbleMumble

    Would you go back and reread the first two sentences of this blog post? Whether it was your intention or not, the way in which you structured the introduction suggests very strongly that this was directed at atheists who favor science too much. And this taints the entire rest of the post, as well as the one that came before it.

    I initially ignored the line in the earlier post about religion being basically human because it was couched in an anthropological/sociological/psychological discussion of belief. Essentially, I ignored it for the reasons that you have cited here (above). But, as I said, combined with your follow-up post that begins to delve deeper into truth-finding, that earlier line takes a more sinister tone. I believe you are trying to be as evenhanded as you can be, but that your bias reveals itself in the choices you make in your writing.

  • connorwood

    It’s too bad that you think so. I personally do have a bit of a pro-religion bias in that I see how religion A:) is very good at tying human communities together, and B:) our contemporary society suffers from having poorly integrated communities. In other words, I see how our culture suffers from the lack of many of the things that religion traditionally has offered.

    But I’m also very aware of the negative aspects of various religions, including parochialism, negative tribalism, oppression of women, and so forth. And I get personally very frustrated by the world-constraining effects of religion on real people. So the bias actually does go both ways, and we discuss these things on this blog. So I’m a bit confused as to why you call us “biased,” when we also cover things like the ways in which ritual encourages tribalism and outgroup violence (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/09/ritual-creates-tribesand-tribalism/#more-872); how social capital and potentially religion helped the spread of Nazism (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/08/social-capital-and-religion-helped-the-spread-of-nazism/#more-809); why religious people are likely less creative than the non-religious (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/07/why-arent-religious-people-as-creative-as-unbelievers/#more-684); or how criminals use religion to justify their crimes (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/scienceonreligion/2013/06/how-criminals-use-religion-to-justify-their-crimes/#more-652). It seems as if you’re looking for a contest of wills, which is not what’s on our menu here. If you want incisive looks at religion from an integrated science/humanities perspective that A:) takes human evolution seriously and assumes that there are evolved reasons why certain behaviors have stabilized themselves in our species, and B:) isn’t interested in prosecuting an anti-religious agenda simply because such an agenda is currently popular in some academic quarters, then we’ve got you covered.

  • connorwood

    I’ve registered your displeasure. I’m also not about to take anything back. No one can be perfectly unbiased, and I stand by my claim that science is often taken to be gospel by people – atheists and non-atheists alike – who could do well to get out of the conceptual world of science now and then and re-enter the first person world of experience. That’s it; that’s all I have to say. Take from it what you will, and have a pleasant day.

  • MumbleMumble

    I’m not asking you to take anything back. I’m asking you to be more conscious of the decisions you make when you are writing. I’m informing you that some readers (like myself) are perceiving a particular slant to your writing that you may not be intending. This is feedback. I hope you consider it in the future.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Couldn’t agree more with Mumble!
    Also, “basically human” is an odd phrase.
    Violence is “basically human” –> your agenda continues to shine through.
    Put a poll up see what folks think. Ooops, that won’t work, religiously biased people would see it differently that religiously-free folks. Hmmmmm — how do we decide?

  • MumbleMumble

    I’m glad it’s not just me. Hopefully with more than one person interpreting the writing as biased, something will register with the author.

  • stanz2reason

    Connor… I think 1) efforts made to objectively describe reality via scientific study and 2) actually subjectively experiencing reality aren’t ‘either/or’ things, rather these two are symbiotic of sorts as the first informs and contextualizes the second while the second drives the pursuit of the first. They are complimentary, but distinct.

    I don’t think science advocates say that science is reality, any more than an architect would say a blueprint is a house, or that designing one is living in one. Someone below mentioned you might be strawmanning a bit here, and I agree. The reliance on models doesn’t need to be replaced with subjective reflection on such things, though taking the time to reflect in such a manner might create a more rich conscious experience for the individual. And a models ability to convince you via being consistent with observation should be indicative that it is a fairly accurate representation of reality, however simplified. That is the goal, no?

    Skeptics argue against religious belief for a number of reasons. In this context (that of truthfully describing the world) it’s not whether religious beliefs have a net good/bad effect over all, but whether or not they are true in some sort of demonstrable objective sense. And of course they are not. That’s ultimately where the beef lies for many of us.

  • connorwood

    Thank you for actually engaging the substance of the essay, Standz2reason.

    I completely agree that reflection on and participation in reality are complementary, and we need both. In fact, I use the word “complementary” in the essay itself. Maybe I should have made it more clear that I meant the immersion in sensory experience to be a complement to abstracted reflection on it, but honestly I think it ought to be pretty clear from the essay that I have a tremendous amount of respect for science, and assumed that this would be clear. Oh well; this is how one learns.

    Science is one of the most dominant institutions of our culture. Almost no workers are more respected by the American public than scientists (http://www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-Pres-Occupations-2009-08.pdf). The embodied experience of first-person living, on the other hand, gets pretty short shrift in our culture. This is why I wrote the essay as an encouragement of embodiment as a useful complementary foil to science. We don’t need any encouragement to spend more time in abstractions. We’re doing that just fine already. We need more encouragement to immerse ourselves in experience, so that the pendulum-swing between immersion and reflection can be more balanced and our ideas about and experience of reality more robust.

    As for the accusations of straw man arguments, it’s pretty hard to see the list of books coming out by major science advocates and not see a (naïve) triumphalism about science. E.O. Wilson’s Consilience is an example. Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape. Everything Steven Weinberg has ever written for the public. The science and op-ed pages of the New York Times. Science’s prestige does, in fact, allow its advocates to make grandiose and objectively false claims about its capacities. I think this is a bad thing, not because science is somehow flawed or inferior to other spheres of human endeavor but because science is not reality. It is REFLECTION ON reality – systemized, quantified, and made communal. As such, it is immensely powerful and useful. But an outsider reading books by Dawkins, Weinberg and so forth could easily be forgiven for thinking that such authors have forgotten that science only describes reality, and is not itself reality.

    Finally, I honestly am a bit confused why so many commenters have assumed that because I am cautioning that there are limits to what science can tell us about the world, I am somehow advocating religion. I say EXPLICITLY twice in this essay that this is not what I’m doing. I explicitly claim that the opposite of science is not religion, but embodiment. So far no critical commenters have taken up this point, and have instead read (falsely) between the lines to assume that I am advocating for the truth of religious claims. This essay, quite simply, was not about religion’s relationship to science, but science’s relationship to embodiment.

  • connorwood

    Sabio, I find it interesting that you never responded to my comment below, in which I lay out my position very clearly AND reference and link to several articles on this blog that raise critical questions – some are very critical – about religion. It seems to me that every time I post an article that’s critical of religion, it sinks like a stone and anti-religion religion readers ignore it. But as soon as I write a piece that suggests something positive about religion – such as its ability to bind communities together – or that is the tiniest bit critical of science, I get swarmed by people claiming that I’m a shill for religion. This is cherry-picking of evidence if I’ve ever seen it.

    I also note that neither you nor other other critical commenters on this thread have addressed the basic claim of this essay, which is that the complementary opposite of science is not religion, but embodiment. Science abstracts from experience, whereas embodiment immerses in it. We need both in order to make sense of the world, but our culture tends to valorize the abstractions too much. I make the point twice in the essay that I am not advocating for religion, and quite frankly I find it frustrating that neither you nor the other commenters are able to see past what appear to be your emotional triggers to the basic claim I’m making, which is that immersion in experience and reflection on experience are complementary opposites, and that we would all do well not to forget the immersion part.

    You’re free to comment on any aspect of the essays you read here, but it sure would make for better conversation if you’d focus on the ideas.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    it sure would make for better conversation if you’d focus on the ideas.

    Everyone here is challenging your bias. You skillfully do not focus and accuse me of not focusing. Bad rhetoric and certainly not inviting. So are we all unfocused and confused or are you stubborn?

    I won’t have stubborn conversations — I know turf when I see it.

  • stanz2reason

    While the science world can occasionally overstep it’s bounds of what it can do, this is often done by conveniently tweaking or broadening definitions of terms, sort of pushing the line rather than crossing it. Sam’s ‘The Moral Landscape’ is, for me, a good example for this. I enjoy Sam’s work quite a bit and agree with his points far more than I disagree with them. Yet while we can study and conclude in some objective fashion how certain actions can have positive or negative effects on human well-being and from that derive some form of sound ethical principles, I don’t feel this qualifies as objective morality as Sam suggests. I feel moral sensibilities are not so different from taste. While I might be able to note that most people prefer chocolate and point out that this is likely due to chemical X having an effect on part Y of the brain, I can’t say chocolate is objectively good any more than someone can say an action is objectively good (as much as I’d like to on both accounts). This in itself is a topic for another day (or days).

    I do think that most instances of science patting itself on the back often occur when they, frankly, deserve a pat on the back. The science world has demonstrated time and again that in the game they’re playing (providing an accurate description of the natural world), they are simply without equals. Sometimes science starts wading into abstract or to highly complex systems but I believe conclusions based on soft science (psychology, economics, social sciences) are more informative and helpful in a real world way than informing yourself by consulting yourself, which is ultimately what I’m hearing when you use ‘embodiment’ in such a manner. Embodiment is science at it’s softest.

    In terms of informing yourself about the objective natural world, in a fight between science and self-reflection, science wins this 90% of the time… 9% is a tie due to your self-reflection agreeing with what science has to say… the final 1% is a hedged bet. This says nothing about value assignment, which happens at the subjective level, nor does it say anything about matters with which science currently has nothing concrete to say (ie. what happened prior to time = 0?) even if science could have something to say in the future.

    Imagination and thought experiments often help to fill in the blanks with science (Relativity is such an example), so I agree in a sense that the subjective can help determine what is the objective, but once that objective is solid, this is no longer a two-way street. It is this point where the worlds of experience immersion and religious belief collide. Your advocacy for an increased focus on the subjective experience of existing (ultimately at the expense of a lesser focus on the study of the objective reality we share) is parallel to the religious arguments for a ‘facts be damned’ line of thinking. This is how it sounds, or more specifically this is how I hear (read) it, regardless of your intent. I’m sure you’re aware how key-words and phrases (even ideas) sounds differently to different groups. Believers might be overly sensitive to an idea that a skeptic is not. And vice-versa.

    That people can have a religious experience has little to do with the truth of that experience. To a skeptic, once something is established in a concrete demonstrable way, it can only be replaced or altered by a greater more concrete more demonstrable mcguffin. Experience (both the noun and the verb) has shown to be a far less reliable a source of information about the world. Perhaps I’m just unclear what your epistemological goals are.

  • connorwood

    > informing yourself by consulting yourself, which is ultimately what I’m hearing when you use ‘embodiment’ in such a manner. Embodiment is science at it’s softest.

    That’s the hitch. “Embodiment” is NOT science at its softest because it is not science, period. I am not claiming that embodiment is in competition with science for describing the natural world. I am arguing that it’s good to get out of our heads every once in a while. When you allow yourself to sit and watch the traffic go by and feel the sun on your skin, you’re not TRYING to “describe physical reality.” That’s not what you’re interested in right in that moment. You’re interested in just being. And that’s an important thing to do, quite often. I honestly can’t see why this is such a controversial claim.

  • stanz2reason

    You can experience the world while still acknowledging it for what it is (or at least what it appears to be). I go back to my original point that I don’t see why this is an either/or scenario. Perhaps it’s not and I’m mis-understanding.

  • connorwood

    No, I don’t think it’s an either/or thing, either, just like analytical and holistic cognitive styles are no mutually exclusive. But our culture tends to valorize the scientific abstractions at the EXPENSE of experiential engagement, and this implicit pressure in the culture is what I’m reacting against. I strongly feel that reflective and immersive experiences are complementary, and are both necessary for sound epistemology.

  • Educurator

    Science is reality , reality is science no difference b/w science and reality .
    Science = reality .
    http://www.educurator.org

  • Ali Zain

    yes true i agree with this statement .

  • Eli

    I’ve read this a few times and read the comments here, and I *think* I understand what you’re saying. Science is like a map of reality, a way of understanding reality, and different but complimentary to that is the sensory/emotional experience of human reality? A “map” and experience are different things with different “goals” but both are necessary in life? And it seems to you that too many people focus primarily on the mapping part while neglecting the experience part? Is that the basics of what you’re saying?

  • connorwood

    You’ve mostly got it, Eli.

  • guest

    I don’t really understand why you think this reminder is necessary. Surely all the observations of science come ultimately from sense data. Who is more embodied, more aware of the world around them, than a scientist in the process of running an experiment? Biologists in the field, making observations of animals in real time. If anyone needs a reminder of what reality is, it’s not scientists.

  • Grotoff

    The instinct toward triumphalism and the denigration of simple experience is precisely because the history of humanity, particularly of organized religion, substituted subjective impression for objective inquiry. Where the ancients were wrong, thoroughly wrong, science has been right. Now we plumb the depths of space and of fundamental particles. Navel gazing doesn’t get us anywhere.

    Today’s late modernism pushes back against postmodernist self-centered irony and the superstitious poison of religion both. “Subjective reflection and immersion” are too prone to deception and wishful thinking. As compliments to objective inquiry they are useful but only there. Too often they have served as a substitute for it.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    agree

  • James

    I too found it biased. The post struck me as a straw man: “science as reality.” When in fact scientists use science as a tool for approximating reality, a tool that objectively yields far better results than any other epistemology that has ever been tried. No scientist ever says their theory is an absolute; and those who continue to dogmatically defend their pet theory in spite of not being supported by evidence, quickly find themselves ostracized by the scientific community, their research unpublished.
    Even the best supported theories are always subject to change in light of new discoveries, something that no other epistemology is accustomed to do as well. The gist of this article struck me as “science isn’t perfect, therefore believe in whatever you like, evidence be damned.” Not very satisfying; at least to my mind. this seemed rather like an appeal to ignorance. Pointing out the limitations in science – limitations science is already well aware of – hardly builds a convincing case for any alternative epistimology, such as religion.
    Scientists have a pesky devotion to evidence; an incomplete knowledge, contingent upon possible new discoveries, is far more likely to be true than are mutually contradictory belief systems that provide no evidence at all, which seems to be what the author is trying to defend here..

  • James

    No one can be perfectly unbiased, however you don’t seem to try that hard not to be biased. That’s an interesting slip there, “taken to be gospel.” To a scientist, however, nothing can ever be “taken to be gospel.” That is the domain of religion.

  • Y. A. Warren

    What a wonderful job you have done in attempting to have people stop living only inside boxes, the boundaries of which are proscribed by others. All honest scientists admit to the existence of anecdotal evidence, even if many attempt to discredit the validity of such.

    It never ceases to amaze me that the very people who say that “God” is so huge that we cannot understand even a bit of the omniscient, omnipresent, unknowable OZ are the ones who continually insist on such limiting descriptions of this being.

  • connorwood

    Agreed, Y.A. – If I were to write this post again, I’d point out that religious conceptions of God (or whatever religious concept we’re discussing) are very often just as rigidifying as scientific concepts. You need to get outside and breathe the air in order to get away from religious concepts just as much as from scientific ones.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thank you. i so appreciate informed, intelligent discourse on subjects that tend to evoke emotional short circuiting of any attempts at communication of ideas.

  • Y. A. Warren

    So wrong on so many levels. This type of arrogance is what turns people away from science. Honest scientists admit that all “truths” are actually the prevailing theory of the time, and are open to new discoveries. They also admit that there is validity in anecdotal evidence, even when it may not effect statistical analysis.

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    Thank you for this! As I say in my book, “Reality is what exists, whether you believe in it or not.”

  • Msironen

    I think the general point you’re trying to make is at least partially disingenuous. Take for example the Polkinghorne quote; the fact that the huge quantities of molecules makes predictions impractical isn’t the same as “science doesn’t know what happens after a few collisions”. At this point we in fact know pretty much all particle interactions (aside from gravity at quantum level) to any degree of accuracy that we care to measure.
    Reality may be surpassingly complex (to us, anyway) but it’s only due to the surpassingly huge amount of interactions going on. The interactions themselves aren’t that complicated nor are there particularly many types of them, either.

  • ortcutt

    This does seem to be some sort of hippy-dippy phenomenalism. Please step away from the Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and other such nonsense. I have no idea what referring to it as “the experience of perception” does to help. Our experiences are part of reality, the natural world we live in, and open to scientific study. What your appeal to phenomenalism has to do with the incompleteness of any scientific theory to account for all natural facts is absolutely beyond me.

  • http://joannevalentinesimson.wordpress.com/ ValPas

    If there were a “like” button at the bottom of this blog, I’d click on it.

  • connorwood

    Thanks! If you don’t already, you can follow our Facebook page – that’s pretty much the next best thing! https://www.facebook.com/ScienceOnReligion.org

  • Paul Boillot

    “But models and ideas are not reality. Only reality is reality.”

    Abstraction scares you? Is uninteresting? Upsetting? Confusing? Distracting?

    Fair enough.

    For some of us, that is not the case.

    Your complaints put me in mind of one of my favorite people.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSZNsIFID28

  • connorwood

    Feynman would have quite handily been able to tell the difference between his friend’s attitude and my own. I am not denigrating abstraction, but only pointing out that it’s good to re-immerse in bodily experience at regular intervals.

    I really am bemused that so many people have taken issue with this; it makes me wonder whether you and other critical commenters have something against your own bodies.

  • http://triangulations.wordpress.com/ Sabio Lantz

    Connor,

    Wow, lots of readers tell you they see problems with what your wrote.
    You claim all of us are deluded.
    You now attack us and say we “have something against [our] own bodies”.

    Dude, this is unbelievable.
    Instead of admitting that either you were wrong, OR your writing was bad OR both, you attack your readers.

    Unbelievable.

    Maybe it is You who needs to stop, take a breath, check out your visceral states, watch you’re emotions and in general check in. In other words, “reside more fully in [y]our own bod[y]“!

    When the majority doubt me, I doubt myself.
    Instead, your strike outward.

  • CJ99

    After having read the article (with your name attached) about “tantric sex” It’s pretty clear that you have something against our bodies and are clearly projecting.

  • CJ99

    The irony being is the authour of this article, like so many of his ilk seeks to debase science (despite the fluffy protestations otherwise) since it contradicts his view of the world, that despite his claims is not the least bit real. This whole article clearly shows ulterior motives in the most amateurish way.

  • CJ99

    Only an extremist describes fact as arrogance. Try living in reality before you lecture the rest of the world on what it is.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Thanks for your opinion.

  • Moshe

    Reading the comments here is a fascinting experience of seeing 1) just how primed people are to go into the science vs. religion debate even when that’s not at all the issue, and 2) what the western religions call idol worship (treating any 1 thing as if it’s every-thing), people seem to be responding to your statements that while science is fantastic at what it does, it happens to not be concerned with embodiment, and therefore does not do that, whereas embodiment might be a pretty vital aspect of living a happy/fulfilled life and so we might want to supplement, and maybe 3) how nervous peopel are about just, you know, embodying.

  • Collin237

    Focusing on an emphatic conclusion to an essay is not “idolatry”. It’s simply recognizing and responding to the modern writing style of the English language.

  • Guest

    The brain is also a body part. The old adage that a brain cannot feel is simply false. There is a real sensual pleasure in the neural activity of thinking abstractly. If my feeling this is an anomaly — perhaps part of my Asperger’s syndrome — and not something most people share, then so much the worse for humanity.

  • Collin237

    The brain is also a body part. The old adage that the brain cannot feel is simply false — at least for Aspies like me. There is a real sensual pleasure in the neural activity of thinking abstractly.

  • Åsa Wihlbeck

    The great distinction between a “scientific” worldview (can mean many things) and a “religious” worldview (can mean many things) is, (even in the plurality of interpretations of both views) that of
    INQUIRY, QUESTIONING,
    not taking given answers as truths just because they come from an authority; parent, priest – or even scientific expert.

    The scientific approach to the world is that of questioning. Of trying to understand nature and the world. It is far from perfect, but it’s an attitude of not fooling oneself into believing that one knows the way things are, but embracing curiosity, experiencing and trying to figure out this amazing world of ours. Thinking freely, putting assumptions to the test, in an attempt to lay a puzzle that will give tools to improve the lives of others: treatments for the diseased, computers that enable global and instant communications between people.

    There have been claims from scientists about revealing the “truth”. That is a troublesome part of the history of science, but it doesn’t change the core of science.

    The world is amazing. Dare to not having to rely on faith and pre-given truths formulated by others, dare to question, dare to figure the world out, and in the process perhaps you can enrich the lives of others in concrete ways – as science is a process for finding out what works, even if it does not give the “truth” of the essence of reality.

    The world is amazing – discover it with your own eyes, that’s what a scientist aims to do.

  • connorwood

    You appear to have read this article as an argument against science and for religion. You are wrong. Please read it again, and with an open mind this time. Thanks.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X