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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
There was neither non-existence nor existence then.
There was neither the realm of space nor the sky which is beyond.
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.
“By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
People feel correctly, that finding meaning in life involves finding a “greater than human reality” by which they mean some kind of supernatural transcendance. Personally I am not even sure what that entails. But I do agree with Frankl that we desire to be part of something greater than ourselves. Going beyond yourself (self-transcendence) certainly does not have to involve some kind of mythical being. Loving another, being involved with community, or contributing to society are all things we can strive for that take us beyond ourselves. If we want to go further, there is a whole universe to try and comprehend. Anything bigger than that is unnecessary to the hypothesis.