Friday, July 18, 2014

Single Case Scenario Thinking, part 1

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”― Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

I think I get where Carl Sagan is coming from even though I disagree. I'm not sure what a "conventional" faith is and I would pretty much be afraid to venture into faiths I consider unconventional... like Scientology, unfortunately named to be sure. As well, I am always unsure when I come across some logic that most major religions and/or philosophical beliefs can be characterized in a certain way. Each believes itself distinctly separate from any other.  Lumping them all together is useful for sound bites but the variety of man's belief, especially religious belief, is hard to put into some taxonomic system where generalizations can be made about the whole. Putting together all one's opponents into a word or tight phrase can come in very useful in debate and oversimplification however. "Hardly any major religion" is a qualifier that makes the statement fairly mamby pamby. What are the exceptions logically alluded to by the necessity of the qualifier? We cannot assume that sheer numbers of believers would be an indicator of accuracy in religion or in science. If only one person is correct, and all others misguided, that one person is still correct

It is difficult to characterize religion. It is often founded on a historical belief structure. This is religion's limitation and the source of its strength, if I can say general things about widely dissimilar things. Here, is the idea that some things never change, or that there is the hopeful possibility of a deeper understanding that does not vary with subsequently improved strengths of telescopic magnification. There is some wisdom in attempting the statement of some wisdom that remains true despite changes in culture or despite what in some period of time becomes generally accepted as true, possibly later to be proven false.

I can use my experiences in studying Zen and Taoism. I assure you, the wonder of the universe drips from the pages of the Tao Te Ching, while it comes close to predicting science's current path in a time before science. That, to me, is remarkable considering western science grew out of a seemingly separate culture.
“There is little to choose between a man lying in the ditch heavily drunk on rice liquor, and a man heavily drunk on his own ‘enlightenment’!” - Oda Sesso (1901-66)
One might think that concepts like the one in this humorous quote are uncommon in religion. They are not. Pride is not well respected in religious texts. Followers of any religion, or of science, ignore this at their peril.

Why would someone think that a prophet who believed that faith the size of a mustard seed could move mountains was somehow believing in a "little God" once plate tectonics was more widely understood?  Mountains were pretty trendy in terms of size in those days. "Billions" may not yet have been invented but I am unsure that it is necessary to think the universe is grander because of science. Stars were not so well understood back then, I would imagine, but I am uncertain it matters. I know the people Sagan is referring to. [In earlier versions of this entry, I missed the careful nuance that keeps his quote more acceptable in his time, in fact.] I see the careful wording but I feel the whole controversy it stirs is unnecessary. Yes, religion and government suck when added together. But I am of the apparently singular opinion that science and government combined are almost worse. [See from other blogs my opinions on how well government functions under the auspices of capitalistic endeavors. Science suffers the same functional weakness when combined with capitalism and government... and, well, I lament the US government encouraging the growth of big money centralized agriculture for one thing. Decry Monsanto's influence on the world and you decry science.]

I'm sure we can surmise quite a lot about stars everywhere (even those which we have never even seen up close like the one we can almost see up close that is sort of near to us and we sort of understand in a limited way) merely by logical extrapolation from our own solar system. But I fear it is simply the measuring of shadows upon the cave wall and we are a long and possibly infinite distance from knowing the universe as it really is. It is hardly more grand because of our better guesses.

How much less majestic was the view of even the caveman when compared to the view of a modern educated child... the child who has limited creativity by rote knowledge of categorization and has trouble with attention span?
“We seldom realize, for example that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society.” ― Alan Wilson Watts
Alan Watts, who studied eastern religions, taught me through his books many things about questioning my own ideas first. I have never been stuck walking in the narrow religious corridor Carl Sagan speaks of, yet I do believe in a God. Sagan makes his points very eloquently. I read a number of quotes when I was trying to verify that this one was accurate. One could say his passion for science trumps all other ideas, in all other unrelated fields. Sometimes I wish I felt as passionate about any belief structure. I have grown older and cynicism has creeped in. Yet, I feel (without certainty) that certainty, the same certainty that Sagan is criticizing with a strong feeling of certainty, is not the work of necessarily greater minds and almost certainly not the work of wiser minds. :)

How could we even be close to an understanding of the universe that might be essentially unknown assuming what I must assume by science's much used trope against religion, that we are located in a random backwater and not the center of the universe. The base of all our knowledge is then predicated on what we have learned from this single case scenario of our own seemingly unimportant solar system, with no real knowledge of any other? Is that the grandeur I am missing? When one discusses a black hole or a quark am I supposed to be in awe of the lack of concrete knowledge or of the tale told so grandly?

Stars, awe, and wonder were important in many religions as they developed. It is not limiting God to say that God is greater than all that, and modern religions do pretty much say that, if I want to make a general statement. Religion is only limiting when one considers certain arguments from certain religious people who, say, believe the earth is a particular number of years in age. Their logic clashes with their texts in their eyes and they hold on to their texts in a literal way. Agreed, it is broadly limiting, snicker, when one thinks one has the wherewithal to understand all of existence based only upon the knowledge one has gained in one's particular single case scenario, whether it be in reading ancient texts one too literally believes in or in the structured knowledge gained from the third planet in the solar system one happens to be located in. Both sides of the debate need to know when metaphor is metaphor.

I agree with Sagan that there is the possibility of saying "Look at the extra wonder!" as knowledge progresses, but there is also the possibility of hubris that I honestly think is more common. Such hubris, I believe, is more in line with what many who are stuck in the narrow corridors of science have to say about the possibilities of the unknown.

Sagan is wonderful here in this rhetorical quote with some exceptions. One obviously is that he oversteps with the phrase "hardly any major religion." I get the feeling I will see unquantified and unstudied phrases like this a lot as I venture forward into the way science now regards religion. I will try to quit pointing out things like the possibility that even if a minor religion with two converts in a barn were correct about the existence of God, God would exist. I'll leave it to you to insert where applicable this idea that what is reality might not necessarily result from agreement of large numbers of authorities. As scientists, surely they should know this search for authority, past or present, is the antitheses of the scientific method.

The saintly Japanese Zen hermit, poet, calligrapher, friend of children and benefactor to the poor, Ryokan (1758-1831), lived austerely and simply in a little hut below a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to find nothing there to steal. So he went off into the night. Ryokan caught up with him: “You may have come a long way to visit me, and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The bewildered thief took the clothes and slunk away. Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon!”