Reality: Code or Narrative?
The following is a guest post by one of my most faithful and constructive blog discussion partners. I invited Luke to compose a guest post and this is the first one. Possibly others will follow. Please know that I will not be responding to comments regarding this post; Luke can respond to any as he wishes. However, please do not respond unless you have a question (which may or may not be answered) and/or a constructive comment that is intended to contribute to the conversation here about science and religion.
About Luke: Luke Breuer is a software engineer whose father (also a software engineer) convinced him at a young age that the Bible matters for everyday life. He enjoys studying philosophy, sociology, and theology in his free time. He lives in San Francisco with his wife.
Luke Breuer’s Guest Post;
Last month, Dr. Olson asked, Is Belief in a “Historical Adam” an Essential Christian Belief? I want to broaden that line of inquiry and ask two questions: (1) How does modern science impact our reading and understanding of scripture? (2) How should modern science impact our reading and understanding of scripture? In considering these questions, I worked hard to tease apart the difference between science and theology. Although ‘theology’ may be the wrong term; without the kind of correction Dr. Olson is issuing with his new book, theology can appear to be just another (competing?) set of equations, called ‘doctrines’. The following is an attempt to find some important difference(s) between science and Christianity which devalues neither, nor erects a dividing wall of hostility. If all goes well, this will be the first of a series of guest blog posts, with the progression in part guided by Dr. Olson and commenters.
Science de-personalizes. This has strengths and weaknesses. What we so often lack are intricate ways to explore those strengths and weaknesses. All too often, the strengths of science are articulately presented: antibiotics, enough food for everyone, safety from nature, the internet which relayed these words to you and the wondrously complex device you are using to read them. But what of its weaknesses? Bertrand Russell became depressed at times; perhaps apocryphally, this was from the coldness of reality, and he would play cards for a while until things were better and he could return to mathematics and science. Surely a Christian’s faith does more than the equivalent of an occasional game of cribbage with friends?
Let us suppose that science is like a black and white movie. The color is irrelevant to the plot; it merely adds subjective sensations. Supposing that is true, let us print out every frame of the movie, shuffle them, and hand them out to a class of elementary schoolers to color however they seem fit. When they are done, gather the colorings, re-order them, and assemble them back into a film. Imagine that you are now watching that film. Does it make sense? It now has “personality”.
I am sneakily drawing on a move in the Enlightenment which was intended to make reality more “objective”. It is called the “primary/secondary quality distinction” and one of its claims is that color is just “in your head”. But there is another aspect which is just “in your head”, and that is your own perspective. We need to make another modification to that movie: instead of a camera which prejudicially follows certain characters around and then suddenly switches to other characters, we need a sort of bird’s-eye-view which captures everything all at once. Let us call this the “overseer perspective”.
This perspective is intentionally unhuman, intentionally impersonal. Being “objective”, it is not colored by cognitive biases or other prejudices which are said to distort our understanding of what is true. And yet, one might be tempted to describe such a perspective in this way:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
After all, from this “overseer perspective”, can we even detect a story? Or do we merely have a scrolling list of state-changes? For example:
- Character A scratched her nose.
- Character B walked ten feet.
- Character C put on a hat.
- Character A got out of a taxi cab.
Is a complete list of such state-changes what it would take “for the earth [to] be full of the knowledge of the LORD / as the waters cover the sea.”? Or is it more like the uninterpreted, downward-scrolling, green “code” on screens monitoring the Matrix? Cypher said that he had learned to look at the code and see “blond, redhead, brunette”. And yet, science is constitutionally blind to such things—except to note three different frequencies of the light reflecting from three different locations.
What science does is abstract away almost all of reality so that we may laser-focus on an aspect here and an aspect there, to understand them richly. God celebrates this:
It is the glory of God to conceal things,
but the glory of kings is to search things out.
Science is assuredly a key part to filling the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD. We learn more about the Creator by studying creation. But we must keep in mind that when we abstract away most of reality, the specimen on the microscope slide is not necessarily the same. Often it is killed, “fixed”, and stained. Only a fraction of bacterial species can currently be successfully cultured and studied in detail. Those bacteria which can be cultured are often carefully cultivated into being good lab specimens, which makes them less like what one finds in the wild.
When we take all the aspects intensely studied by science and re-assemble them, will they result in a coherent movie? Or will they be more like the hodge-podge created by those elementary schoolers? For example, some schools of thought have persons being “socially constructed”, while almost no schools of thought have mental illness being a symptom of “society”. Can society itself be sick? The Bible has plenty to say about this—Nineveh, for example.
Might there need to be a sort of “narrative curating” done by a viewpoint which is not [intentionally] restricted like science’s? Perhaps theology could apply for the job? Perhaps it could see sickness where science merely notes data. Perhaps it could point the way toward health where science just enhances power. In a letter to Gilbert Murray on April 3, 1902, Bertrand Russell wrote the following:
It appeared to me that the dignity of which human existence is capable is not attainable by devotion to the mechanism of life, and that unless the contemplation of eternal things is preserved, mankind will become no better than well-fed pigs. But I do not believe that such contemplation on the whole tends to happiness. It gives moments of delight, but these are outweighed by years of effort and depression.
Without God, maybe such contemplation does tend toward depression. The author of Ecclesiastes certainly had some concerns in this domain. Maybe all narratives are false; maybe there is only code and data. On the other hand, perhaps there is a True Myth which science can neither perceive nor understand. Perhaps theology which takes narrative seriously can gather together the disparate aspects of creation, reconciling them without reducing them, helping “kings … search things out,” to the glory of God.
 I am tempted to say that Descartes erected a “dividing wall of hostility” between mind and body with his res cogitans and res extensa. Science would then explore the non-ethereal part, while “how the mind functions” would be a taboo subject until the turn of the twentieth century.
 Wikipedia has an article on the primary/secondary quality distinction, but I found it impenetrable until I had read fairly widely. Even now, there is much I do not understand. One book which helped considerably was Colin McGinn’s The Subjective View: Secondary Qualities and Indexical Thoughts. McGinn questions whether it is logically possible to perfectly separate the ‘subjective’ from the ‘objective’.
 A very brief history of how much mental illness is caused by biology vs. by thought vs. by society is covered by Nancey Murphy in her 1997 Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics. By that point, the “biology” approach had won: mental illness was the result of chemical imbalance in the brain. Fast forward to 2013 and we have an intriguing hypothesis by Liah Greenfeld in her Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience that culture can partly cause some mental illnesses.