What a wonderful world this is!

Monthly Archives: January 2015

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. We need wide appreciation of this kind of thinking. It works. It’s an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change. Our task is not just to train more scientists but also to deepen public understanding of science.

Carl Sagan

Many times, because of the success of technology, we seem to forget that science is not a “thing” but rather a process,or even better yet, a worldview.  It is a world where not only do the theories change, but often even the “facts” themselves.  When Darwin started collecting information for the theory of evolution the earth was thought by many people to be 6000 years old, by many scientists to be hundreds of thousand of years, and a few scientists a couple of million.  A few years later, many millions.  Now, about five billion.  A scientist’s “faith” cannot be in the “facts” or theories, they are ever changing.  Their faith is in the method, that being open to new information and allowing the data to lead the way that some more light will shine into the dark corners, which will reveal even more dark corners.  But along the way, pictures emerge, ideas come together and puzzle pieces fit, giving tremendous satisfaction and meaning.  Until it all changes and we have to begin again.  Humility is the virtue of a scientist.


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True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.
― Seneca

This theme comes up over and over again in the great philosophic and spiritual traditions.  There must be something to it.  Something that most of us can’t actually do.


Those who assert that the mathematical sciences say nothing of the beautiful or the good are in error. For these sciences say and prove a great deal about them; if they do not expressly mention them, but prove attributes which are their results or definitions, it is not true that they tell us nothing about them. The chief forms of beauty are order and symmetry and definiteness, which the mathematical sciences demonstrate in a special degree.
Aristotle, Metaphysics

There are many who seem to feel that math and science are somehow “soulless” and either can not recognize beauty or elegance, even worse as destroying beauty.  I have never agreed with that sentiment, and obviously am in pretty good company.  The beauty in our universe is in what is seen and seeing, as they say is believing.  In reading the writings of great scientists it is generally impossible to miss their sense of awe in what they see.


Six Refined Scholars, Qing Dynasty

17

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

Tao Te Ching, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

There are many slogans that Humanism could adopt, but “We did it ourselves!” is perhaps one of the most powerful.  There are so many organizations where the membership is better than the leadership of those organizations.  I will leave the names to each of you to determine, but I can think of at least one country whose people are respected and thought of much more kindly than its government.  I can also think of a vast religious organization whose members are much more moral and spiritual than their leaders.  Ironically, at to my eyes, in each case those very same people defer to and defend the hierarchy above them, even when it runs counter to their best impulses and philosophies.  Such are the nature of heirarchies.  But if we awaken, we can indeed, do it all by ourselves!


As it is necessary to affix right ideas to words, I will, before I proceed further into the subject, offer some observations on the word ‘revelation.’ Revelation when applied to religion, means something communicated immediately from God to man.
No one will deny or dispute the power of the Almighty to make such a communication if he pleases. But admitting, for the sake of a case, that something has been revealed to a certain person, and not revealed to any other person, it is revelation to that person only. When he tells it to a second person, a second to a third, a third to a fourth, and so on, it ceases to be a revelation to all those persons. It is revelation to the first person only, and hearsay to every other, and, consequently, they are not obliged to believe it.
It is a contradiction in terms and ideas to call anything a revelation that comes to us at second hand, either verbally or in writing. Revelation is necessarily limited to the first communication. After this, it is only an account of something which that person says was a revelation made to him; and though he may find himself obliged to believe it, it cannot be incumbent on me to believe it in the same manner, for it was not a revelation made to me, and I have only his word for it that it was made to him.
When Moses told the children of Israel that he received the two tables of the commandments from the hand of God, they were not obliged to believe him, because they had no other authority for it than his telling them so; and I have no other authority for it than some historian telling me so, the commandments carrying no internal evidence of divinity with them. They contain some good moral precepts such as any man qualified to be a lawgiver or a legislator could produce himself, without having recourse to supernatural intervention. [NOTE: It is, however, necessary to except the declamation which says that God ‘visits the sins of the fathers upon the children’. This is contrary to every principle of moral justice.—Author.]

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason

Epistemology can certainly be a slippery slope, answering the question of how we know what we know is difficult.  Do we have to experience everything personally?  Can we even trust my own personal experiences?  It is true that this kind of exploration can lead some people down a rabbit hole wondering if anything is real.  But if the world is real, which I think we can agree it is, that we can also agree what kind of evidence it takes to move from (as the dictionary definition states) opinion to belief.   Each person has to decide for themselves, but repeatable public observation with some kind of proper controls for the kinds of reasoning errors that we humans are known to be prone to seems to fit the bill.  Right — that is a description of the basis of the scientific method.


There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
What stirred?
Where?
In whose protection?
Was there water, bottlemlessly deep?

There was neither death nor immortality then.
There was no distinguishing sign of night nor of day.
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse.
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness was hidden by darkness in the beginning,
with no distinguishing sign, all this was water.
The life force that was covered with emptiness,
that One arose through the power of heat.

Desire came upon that One in the beginning,
that was the first seed of mind.
Poets seeking in their heart with wisdom
found the bond of existence and non-existence.

Their cord was extended across.
Was there below?
Was there above?
There were seed-placers, there were powers.
There was impulse beneath, there was giving forth above.

Who really knows?
Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced?
Whence is this creation?
The gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whence this creation has arisen
– perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not –
the One who looks down on it,
in the highest heaven, only He knows
or perhaps even He does not know.

Rig Veda, 10:129 Translated by Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty. From the Book “The Rig Veda – Anthology”

The famous “Pillars of Creation” have been revisited by the Hubble Space Telescope in this more detailed view than the one taken in 1995.  Scientists now theorize that not only are stars being created in this region, they are also being destroyed.  And so it goes.


The assumption that we are infallible can we justify the suppression of opinions we think false. Ages are as fallible as individuals, every age having held many opinions which subsequent ages have deemed not only false but absurd.
― John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

It is indeed the sense that we have infallible knowledge that leads to the suppression of human thought and ideas. One of the greatest sources of that feeling of infallibility is, of course, religion. How can it be wrong if God said it?
One of the great attributes of the scientific method is, in fact, humility, the idea that while we may be on the right track, any particular idea could be wrong in part or in whole. In science, one theory can refute another, so all theories have to be considered.
Political theorists such as Mill applied this to the public sphere and enthroned freedom of speech as a natural right so that everyone can have the opportunity to refute the “false and absurd” ideas of the age, even if those ideas are dearly and strongly held by a majority of people.