Column: On Science and Belief
We find ourselves on different sides
Of a line that nobody drew.
Though it all may be one in the higher eye
Down here where we live it is two.
I to my side call the meek and the mild
You to your side call the Word.
By virtue of suffering I claim to have won
You claim to have never been heard.
— Leonard Cohen, Different Sides
Lines of Division
I concluded my last column of 2017 by quoting an exhortation from Charles Eisenstein to all who find themselves in conflict with others, that we should be posing this most important question to those others: “What does it feel like to be you?”
Now I am reading an odd history by Theodore Zeldin, entitled An intimate history of Humanity, where the author posits that humanity needs to “put on new spectacles” and see our past and present not by the model of conflict but with a new way that brings new hopes. He wrote this in 1994.
Having noted that there are people who believe we are living in a time when we can transcend, evolve beyond, the perspective of lines of conflict, I have to say I see no sign we are doing so.
Choosing sides is a substantial signifier, a way for modern or post-modern individuals to establish their particular identity. An excellent current example is the #MeToo movement among women, signalling lines of division in something that used to be called “the battle of the sexes” – though that phrase is distinctly not fashionable now. Catherine Deneuve and other French cultural figures have entered a new note in the debate, showing there is no monolithic opinion uniting all women.
A lesser-reported example would be from Canada, in the small controversy over Senator Beyak and her assertion of a contrarian opinion in the discourse over Canadian history and policy regarding indigenous peoples. Beyak has shown there are Canadians who do not feel that the only reaction possible to that history is shame, remorse, reconciliation. Not all Canadians of the “settler culture” are ready to agree that aboriginal peoples’ existence has indisputably deteriorated within historical relationships between immigrants and indigenes.
Conflict and debate, the building-up of “facts” and “evidence” to make a case, to win an argument, to persuade one’s opponents that their views are “wrong” – this is our paradigm, not the improved social and political landscapes of conversation that visionaries like Eisenstein and Zeldin are trying to demonstrate are possible for humans to create.
Theodore Zeldin: a different kind of historian
I find Zeldin a provocative thinker, a man of immense erudition, an Oxford-educated historian, a philosopher of the human condition. I recommend his book, and his ideas about conversation, which are his latest enthusiasm, are fascinating. Please go online yourself and read about him and his work, paying most attention to what British writers are saying about him.
As an historian myself, teaching history now to seniors in Nelson, I have said things very similar to Zeldin about how people relate their personal history to the grand narrative of human history. He believes people feel a drive to make sense of their life and that historians can connect the personal to the global. I think this is a worthwhile endeavour.
His method is to have a lot of conversations with “ordinary people” – and relate their stories to some broad historical development. (His conversations are usually with French women, for reasons I do not find particularly persuasive.) For example, when he writes about fear as a factor in people’s life-decisions, he then chooses to elaborate briefly about the medieval Vikings and their worldview, their ideals of courage and how to live well fearlessly.
The temptation for historians to apply some analogy of historical times and people to a present situation is irresistible; I succumb to it myself, for it is a way of showing that the study I have given to the past has “relevance.” But the temptation probably should be resisted, because the past is an enormous territory to roam over, selecting facts from a vast field of possibility, from places far removed from one another and from one’s own experience, and knowing as one must that there are things we will never know about the inside of the minds of people in the past. We cannot know people now, living people with whom we speak, to the depth we know the inside of our own mind. How can we possibly recreate the mind of a person who is long dead and the culture in which that person lived, since culture is – as Zeldin puts it himself – ghosts in the thinking of historical people.
I would extend this critique to “political scientists” who feel at liberty to roam the annals of history in search of historical analogy to make a case for a political argument conducted in the present. Is the present President of the USA a threat to democracy, a fascist, a tyrant? Academic writers are publishing essays and books arguing that he is; the rise of the Nazis is a favourite trope.
I find the political-science arguments simply too feeble when they apply “lessons of History.” No such personage called History is alive and teaching anything to anyone anywhere. Every historical moment is unique, every dictator has a context in time and culture unlike that of any other before or since; the differences are in the details, beyond the reach of generalized conclusions about how democracies have been overthrown by tyrannies.
I wish Zeldin well in his project of having conversations that matter, in his hope that by making us all better at the art of conversation we can better the human world. I have to say I am not at all convinced it can be done, any more than I am convinced by Eisenstein’s project of creating the New Story. I am not generally an optimist, of that there is no doubt in my mind.
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup…
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do.
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too…
I used to love the rainbow
I used to love the view…
But I caught the darkness baby
And I caught it worse than you.
Another historian, the online celebrity Yuval Noah Harari, wrote in his best-selling book Sapiens that we are always going to be very limited by the huge Silence of what we cannot know about the being of people in the past, their interiors, their consciousness. Zeldin should bear that in mind always.
Harari also wrote that a person likely has a place on the spectrum of feeling happy where they habitually rest, though they might rise or fall from their default “thermostat setting.” I know my setting is quite medium, a 5 on the 10-scale, since I have known people who reside near 9 (my mother) and at the other end also (no names here, for who wants to be labelled a depressive?).
The theme of my latest column took aim at the idea of “post-truth” and Americans’ cultural moment, when no one believes experts and we are all free to “choose our own truth and make our own reality.” (A lot of what I said there is elaborated by Kurt Anderson in his essay “How America Lost its Mind” in the September 2017 issue of Atlantic, and more fully documented in his full-length book Fantasyland.) I particularly criticized belief in things like alchemy and ET’s who visited earth to set human civilization on track in the deep past.
After writing that December column, I picked up a special collectors’ edition of Scientific American entitled “the science behind the debates” (winter 2017/18), concerned with putting the scientific truth before the reading public in debates over vaccines, food, evolution, gun laws, climate change, and the meaning of truth and faked fact. I went on-air at the co-op radio where I host a program and, from the magazine, I read the scientific facts. I dealt out severe rebukes to people who believe in homeopathy and extraterrestrial visitations, and to people who refuse to vaccinate their children based on false information.
Then after that, I listened to Eisenstein and Rupert Sheldrake discuss science and its dogmas, and heard these two men whose minds and spirits I respect call into question the case for vaccines and against homeopathy. Sigh. What can one do to be consistent, when everywhere one turns are such lines of disagreement? Keep reading, I suppose. Perhaps a final synthesis can come?
I have just completed reading a science-fiction novel by Canadian writer Robert Sawyer, Calculating God. Militant atheism of the Richard Dawkins, Susan Blackmore, and Christopher Hitchens variety appears often in my feeds to Facebook, reflecting no doubt the tastes of my 48 friends on this social media site. I dislike the militancy. Atheism, as Sheldrake has said often and well, is a dogma, incapable of the scientific certainty that is claimed for it. Science is a method and must remain that, not become a materialist dogma called scientism. Read Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free for the arguments.
The science fiction novel I named above, by Sawyer, tries to make a scientific case for God. Sawyer, writing in 2000, puts words in the mouth of one of his characters, that cites statistics about belief in God; of six billion humans on earth, only 220,000 claim to be atheists. The same character, an ET alien scientist, goes on to prove God’s existence to the atheist hero of the novel.
I refuse to be drawn into the debate. I see no reason why one should have to have an opinion. Belief in a deity is efficacious for those who profess it. It alters their life and how they conduct themselves with other people, and that is what I can know, not whether their deity exists for me. A believer has a subjective knowledge of the divine, the experience of which cannot be guaranteed to another person.
Recorded history tells me the human experience of divine mystery has occurred for hundreds of millions of humans before me. Who am I to know they were all deluded? Dawkins, contrary to his self-evaluation, has not won the debate.
Behavioural evidence determines whether the belief in a god or gods is humanly positive, not whether the believer can convince me of their truth. I judge the person by what I can experience of them, in action, not by what I imagine is in their mind.
Once again, the inability of one human mind to know another consciousness, not to know the other as one mind can know itself, is the absolute limit on our knowledge of why a person believes in the divine. That experience, in prayer, in meditation, in revelation, in miracle, is not for me to judge as true or false. It does not matter what I think. It matters how that person acts toward others.
Karen Armstrong has written histories trying to show that it is incorrect to say religions have caused very many wars, but she has not carried her argument. I respect her Compassion Project, but not her defence of religion.
People throughout history have fought wars with one another saying religion was the primary reason to fight their enemy, and I think Armstrong is quite in error to assert she can “get behind” the stated motivations for war, to the deeper roots where politics and economics lurk, using religion for nefarious ends. There have been many who tried with similar arguments to defend religion from this charge of warmongering. I think the effort is wasted.
Religion is as prone to mistaken action as any other phenomenon of human consciousness. The human condition means we often turn a potentially uplifting idea into a negative in our social and political interaction. Go back to the start of this column and re-read the lyrics of Leonard Cohen.
Obviously, I like to read. Equally obviously, reading is not enough for me to have set my conclusions in stone about many things. I can live with that uncertainty. Agnosticism, not knowing, is comfortable.
My present intellectual challenge, attempting to overcome a habit of mind I learned unconsciously over years of reading, thinking, listening, and conversing, is to adopt a more nuanced attitude toward matter.
I have been guilty of the old heresy of Gnosticism, which posits that Matter is a fallen state, that the immaterial spiritual world is higher and better, and that human depravity starts with the soul becoming imprisoned in material flesh.
The English philosopher and public intellectual John N. Gray has written recently on this subject of modern gnosticism, correctly observing that a great many people believe in the inferiority of matter to spirit. Charles Eisenstein has spoken at some length about the mistakes humanity is led into, by regarding material reality as inferior to the immaterial world of energies and spirits. He says we should simply understand matter as one section within a very broad spectrum which includes light and the electromagnetic energies along it.
So I leave readers with a quote from a Facebook post whose author I cannot recall: “Matter is energy whose movements are so slow that our physical senses can perceive it.”