Science, religion, reality and being.

March 4th, 2014
by Chris

I’ve just read a rather good article (the first of a series) on accommodating science and religion. I look forward to more articles. This serious treatment resonates with me, as those who know me or my writing will know that I am a scientific rationalist for most purposes, but with a mystical streak.

In conscience, accomodating science and religion does not seem such of a problem in the UK (as opposed to in the States). By and large, here I find that those who are religious (or spiritual) consider that science and religion deal with different material and talk of different ways of understanding, and consider that these are complementary. I think that way to a great extent myself; the material world is evidence, and the evidence of the material world is wonderfully explained by scientific method. Not at the moment perfectly explained, but better explained than was the case (say) 50 years ago, and it was better explained 50 years ago than it was 100 years ago, and so on, at least back to 1600 or so.

I have no time for logical positivism, however (“Anything that can be known is known by logical and empirical methods. Anything else is nonsense.” quoting from the article). Nor am I quite a logical empiricist (“knowledge is gained through scientific measures, and any claim to know must either be of that kind or something that could be revised scientifically.” – ibid), though when talking of the material world, I come very close to that position. You couldn’t remotely accuse me of being among the religious who “accommodate” science as a result of lack of faith or the pressure of social norms, were you attacking me from the conservative Christian point of view (as some have found out in the past) though you could if attacking me from the other direction more justifiably accuse my God-concept as being a “God of the gaps”, i.e. the operation of God in my understanding has to fit within those areas not currently explained by science. Of course, the implication of a “God of the gaps” is that science proceeds to close gaps at a remarkable rate, and my atheist friends point to the trend and tell me that soon there will be no gaps for my God to fit into.

I can’t see that as a possibility, though, and that is because my faith is also based on evidence, albeit evidence which is (as far as I can tell) entirely internal to me and therefore of no value for convincing anyone else. I have had experiences which, to me, were experiences of God. Those experiences are to me hard fact. I’ll come back to them shortly. Firstly, one or two thoughts about what science can actually tell us.

The article quotes Isaac Asimov saying “… when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” (Asimov, 1989).

I actually take issue with Asimov saying “they were wrong”. This is why:

If I am going to draw a map of my home town, I will do it on a flat piece of paper. For the purposes of drawing a map of the town, it is flat (and those of you who know my home town will particularly agree – it’s in an area where a rise from 5 feet above sea level to 10 feet above sea level is called a “hill”). That, however, breaks down very slightly if I’m going to draw a map of my country, though as my country is quite small by world standards, even then there isn’t much distortion. If I were drawing a map of the United States, however, I would have to take the curvature of the earth into account.

And for almost all map-drawing purposes, considering the earth as a sphere is perfectly adequate (there is some flattening around the poles, but those areas are of so little use to us that the distortions aren’t of much significance).

What I’d prefer to say is that when people thought the earth was flat, they were right within the scale they were thinking of, and when they thought it was spherical the same thing applied. The demonstration of this is that we still use flat maps, we still use spherical globes. They are useful as long as you don’t try to use them in conditions in which their accuracy breaks down.

The article does point this out:- “Now explanations are better or worse if they are more or less accurate in their predictions than alternatives. So Newton was better than Aristotle, and Einstein is better than Newton. Some day we may have an even better theory than Einstein’s, but we cannot deny that we do more now using Einstein than we did with either Newton or Aristotle”.

There’s another progression of the same type here, but with an important difference. We do still use Newton’s equations of motion in smallish scale calculations; using Einstein’s equations complicates things, just as trying to use a globe to navigate around your hometown complicates things, but by and large we don’t use the Aristotle-Ptolemy system for computing the movement of celestial bodies. Why? Because it’s more complicated than using Newton’s equations. (Aristotle and Ptolemy only had the concept of circular motion in the heavens, and didn’t have the concept of a square law force acting on objects rather than a fixed length link; the result was a plethora of circles around points on other circles; the result pretty much did the job it was intended to for early astronomers, but brought in huge numbers of additional circular motions. The equations are simpler for a circle than for an ellipse, but the sheer number of circles needed renders Ptolemaic spheres less useful than Newtonian ellipses – and they can’t explain parabolic motion such as comets at all). In fact, Ptolemaic astronomy was slightly inaccurate as well – it produced an error of about ten days in somewhat over a millennium of observations – but it was close enough for most purposes.

Explanations are therefore better or worse also if they are more or less simple in their execution and if they require less or more unseen entities (in the case of Ptolemy, assumed crystal spheres) to explain them (the rule against multipying unseen entities is commonly called “Occam’s Razor” after William of Occam).

I’ve got to that point in conversation with conservative Christian friends in the past, and they’ve then said “Well, doesn’t the suggestion that “God did it” involve less unseen entities than most of the scientific theories you can quote and mean that it is more simple in its execution?”. Well, yes – but it has relatively little explanatory power and no predictive power at all unless you are able to define that-which-is-God to such an extent that he will be completely consistent in his actions, and I’d tentatively suggest that this will result in a God who is indistinguishable from a scientific theory. I have friends who explain evolution in this way: “Evolution is how God did it”. Those who consider God as “being itself” (Rowan Williams has been known to say something along those lines) or as “the ground of all being” (popular in Catholic circles, and associated with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) are going down this or a very similar route it seems to me.

So we need predictive and/or explanatory power, no conflict with evidence, simplicity and as few unseen entities as possible.

The “being itself” or “ground of all being” theologies (or philosophies) have some major advantages. It is probably impossible for them to conflict with the evidence of the material world, as they do not really speak of the material world – that is left to science (some very well known scientists have favoured a similar view). They are philosophically rather satisfying, and they include a transcendent aspect which is markedly lacking in scientific materialism per se. However, they lack predictive power as they stand. They do not really tell us anything about how the universe works.

They also, from my perspective, fail to explain all of the evidence, as they do not give any real insight into the mystical experience, the direct unmediated experience of God, which I take as a piece of evidence, as I mentioned above. They do have a transcendent aspect, which is singularly lacking in scientific materialism, and which is well harmonised with immanence of a sort, but it is a vastly impersonal immanence. The mystical experience is in my experience a vastly personal one, and I don’t find this reflected in “ground of all being” or “being itself” theologies, nor in the extremes of the God-of-absence of, for instance, Peter Rollins.

I need something which at least explains the mystical experience as I have experienced it, which accounts for the evidence (albeit entirely personal) I have. Scientific materialism by itself fails to do this. As I’ve written before, my first impulse when hit with an extremely powerful first mystical experience (which I hadn’t been looking for) was to enquire whether there was something wrong with my mental processes. However, I hadn’t taken drugs or fasted, wasn’t sleep-deprived or oxygen deprived and my doctor at the time assured me there was no evidence of (for instance) schizophrenia or temporal lobe epilepsy. My late friend George Ashley (a psychologist and atheist) went through all the evidence I could put forward and could come up with nothing better than “it was a brain-fart”. He forgave me for thinking that that wasn’t an adequate explanation for me, though it might have been for him – and one reason for my thinking that it wasn’t was the fact that I found I could encourage (if not guarantee) further similar experience by a set of mental exercises. (These became fined down to contemplative prayer and meditation, which I found most effective).

He was, however, correct in saying that it was ultimately all due to neurons in my brain firing in particular ways. Of course it was – everything without exception which I experience can be reduced to neurons in my brain firing in particular ways, and some fairly recent research has given insight into disindividuation and deindividuation, the first of which is definitely a feature of mystical experience, and pinpointed what actual brain activities are associated with this kind of perception. It can even be artificially stimulated, it seems (though this is hardly news to me, as I knew beforehand that certain drugs, fasting, sleep deprivation and oxygen deprivation could contribute massively to the probability of this kind of experience).

[Incidentally, I have no link for disindividuation, but use this to indicate a separation of the sense of self from the individual perspective; where deindividuation transfers that to the group, disindividuation expands it to the universe (plus?) and/or removes or suppresses it completely.]

But then, other brain functions can be artificially stimulated and produce sensation or cognitive results of a more everyday kind. To George, this meant that the experience could just be written off as having no material correspondence, and therefore being a species of delusion. To me, this is just not an adequate explanation. Hovering on the edge of it has enabled me (for instance) to pass exams, produce some pretty fair artwork (many of my posts have one of my paintings at the top), have useful insights into problems, on a couple of occasions superperform at music and the like; the fuller experience is massively invigorating and calming – and includes a substantial self-verification, or in other words the feeling that this is true. If the edge of it produces insights and performance which are demonstrably right, and produces a lesser degree of self-verification, I  cannot reasonably ignore the self-verification of the whole experience.

And the cognitive aspect of that experience tells me that God is radically omnipresent and yet is in something like a personal relationship with me (and always was, whether I realised that or not). Fully transcendent and fully immanent at the same time. No theology or philosophy which does not accommodate this experience as being in some way real can be satisfactory to me.

My problem is that nothing I have experienced indicates conclusively that any direct effect of God on the material world in detail ever happens. It indicates that direct effects in individual consciousnesses happen, and any material effects are secondary, but not direct effects. Certainly I have lots of testimony I’ve heard as to bizarre coincidences, and I’ve experienced a few myself, but once I’ve applied caveats against cognitive biases, I’m left with nothing conclusive. Except that personal, internal experience, and its occasional effects on my ability to do things (or, very occasionally, to perceive things).

So the elephant in the room here is that as I’m interpreting material phenomena through science, I don’t expect anything “supernatural” to happen. I do expect to be occasionally surprised at the discovery of some new feature of reality which can in principle be explored by the methods of science, and that might just be something which is currently labelled “supernatural”. But it won’t be truly supernatural.

I also don’t expect to come across any “spiritual entities” except within the psychologies of individuals or groups beyond the personal mystical experience of the divine, and the divine is one and not truly multiple; that’s what the experience tells me. Adonai echad, the Lord is one; there isn’t room in my experience for another. That said, I’ve read Walter Wink on the “Powers”, and can see realised “fallen” entities in the power structures of today. But not malevolent supernatural beings floating around and picking on people, or even benevolent ones.

I definitely don’t expect to witness any miracles in the sense of something which contravenes the established laws of nature. I find the whole thing, working as it appears to in accordance with laws of nature (including some which have not yet been discovered) to be miraculous enough, and that’s an everyday miracle, if “everyday” and “miracle” can be combined in one thought. Any miracle which does contravene the laws of nature I cannot completely rule out, but it would be vanishingly unlikely. Or, you might say, “miraculous”.

I do however consider it extremely sound psychology to consider all that occurs as God’s miraculous gift to me and to others, even when it seems extremely hard to work out how that can be the case. There is a well-proven link between gratitude and happiness, and even if it hadn’t been well-proven in psychology, I would have noted it as a result of my depression, during which the ability to feel happy and the ability to feel gratitude both deserted me, and on termination of which both arrived back simultaneously. That isn’t actually why I thank God for the blessings showered on me – that’s a natural outflowing of my love for and trust in a God who I experience, but it would be scientifically unreasonable for me to neglect a proven psychological effect.

I’m hoping that at this point I’ve included enough outside explanation to avoid the responses “But Chris, if you don’t really believe in the supernatural, how can you believe in God?” or “But Chris, this God of yours has no real effect, and so is nothing more than an imaginary friend, surely?”. I’m tempted to answer that I don’t need to “believe” in God, as I experience God as fact. A year ago, nearing the end of a six and a half year severe depression, I had not experienced God at all since the depression had deepened in 2006 and did need to believe, but I believed on the basis of past experience, past data, past fact.

I have to grant, though, that my basically scientific outlook means that a lot of the language of the Bible needs to be reinterpreted in order for me to engage with it, as on a naive reading it does deal with the supernatural, with divine intervention contravening the laws of nature, with gods and angels and powers, principalities, demons and a Devil. Walter Wink (and William Stringfellow and John Howard Yoder) have done that reinterpretation for me in respect of the powers, principalities, demons and Devil, at least for the most part; I am not sure I can currently point at any one writer who has done the same exercise in respect of God, though. The “ground of all being” and “Being itself” authors have, I think, a part of the picture, but not all.

The scientific-rationalist outlook also requires me to be continually sceptical about the absolute accuracy of my understandings, and to continue to test these, refine them and occasionally replace them. This is not necessarily a popular outlook among believers, where “doubt” is often considered a weakness. So this is inevitably a continuing process; what I think about these things in a week may differ.

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