Atheism, Philosophy, Religion, Spotlight

Mystery of Certainty

Atheist Witch.

This is an excerpt from an essay from Atheist Witch blog.

Some deny the reality of any experience or belief that cannot explained (but not disproved) through existing scientific frameworks, and assume anyone claiming otherwise to be either delusional, ignorant or lying. They would justify this by claiming that many people have been proven to be just that while highlighting the dangers of sacrificing “rationality” for the emotional comfort of religion.

What is ironic about this stance is that it actually shows a lot of emotionality and subjectivity.  With… pending mysteries in areas which are so fundamental, it seems silly to not even be open to the possibility of even very fundamental ideas that we have about the universe being completely turned on their head in the future.  It is also seems risky to attempt to usurp “rationality” or “objectivity.”

I personally am in the science camp. I suspect everything in our universe not presently explained by science can, at least theoretically, be explained by science one day. That’s because anything that happens in our universe, however arcane it may seem, can be observed or has effects that can be observed. With time and study we can understand any phenomena.

I believe there is nothing supernatural, period; even the mysteries of consciousness, divinity, and magic have some natural underpinning. We can understand them.

But that is an unproven philosophic position on my part. It’s a popular position today, but not the only reasonable position you can hold.

I highlighted Atheist Witch’s essay because it nicely showcases the very rational basis for maintaining an openness to the supernatural, even from a scientific worldview. There is no scientific basis for believing in the supernatural, but there is a reasonable basis for it.

This is why I can sit side-by-side with strong supernatural believers in the Hounfo, in the Neimheadh, or in any spiritual setting; I see them as intellectual equals. I consider that their belief has merit.

The full essay is titled “Embracing Mystery to Have Certainty.” I hope you will read it on Atheist Witch’s blog and let him know what you think.

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11 thoughts on “Mystery of Certainty

  1. I too, am a rationalist in many ways. I think reason and science are our best tools to analyze physical reality. Does homeopathy work? Let’s do a scientific, statistical test and find out. Are there aliens visiting the Earth? Let’s compare the concrete scientific evidence for and against. This is my approach to all phenomena pertaining to the reality of measurable facts.

    However, I’ve learned (much of it in the last year, honestly) that the set of measurable facts about the world is not the whole of human knowledge. By this I’m not claiming the existence of supernatural entities. When people talk of the supernatural, they usually refer to things that still pertain to the physical, natural reality. That is, a ghost would something I could see and communicate with using physical means. There would be nothing supernatural about that. Like any scientist, I accept the philosophical axiom of naturalism: everything that occurs in physical reality is natural, and therefore follows laws which can be studied and deduced by reason.

    So when I say that the set of scientific facts about the world is not the whole of human knowledge, I mean something else. Think of what this would imply for a moment. What about art, for instance? What about literary fiction? Are these forms of knowledge? Should we shun these human expressions because they certainly don’t belong to the set of scientific facts about the world?

    I think that human experience cannot be entirely described in a meaningful way by science alone. Sure, science is very useful in explaining a part of our experience, that which is related to our experience of what appears to be “external physical reality”. But there is also an inner, non-rational experience of reality that is very meaningful to us. That’s why we seek art, as a way of expressing it. While something like love could certainly be put in scientific terms -it’s all chemistry and neurology, in the end-, would it really be a meaningful description of it? Would it be useful?

    Claiming a posture known as scientism (see Wikipedia) is equivalent to saying that art will eventually be made obsolete by science, as scientific knowledge advances to the point where we can describe even the intricate psychological aspects of human nature in scientific terms.

    What I claim is that, while science perhaps will be able to this, this description will not be meaningful. It won’t ever be what we *really* wanted to communicate. The experience and the scientific description of that experience are worlds apart. Rational language just doesn’t cut it for this task.

    This is were scientism breaks down, in my opinion. If we restrict our knowledge of the world to the positive and scientific, what’s the place of art and fiction? Isn’t it ridiculous to imagine things that cannot be physically real? Some would answer: well, it’s OK to read fiction because we *know* it’s not true in the same sense as Kepler’s Law of planetary motion are true. Why make such distinction at all? Why are we so obsessed with factuality? In some cases, I accept an idea because it’s useful, because it’s beautiful or because it’s meaningful to me, not because it’s “true”.

    This is not a license to “believe” whatever you want. One must be literate enough to distinguish when an idea can be appropriately judged by rationalism and when it cannot. And this has *nothing* to do with the current progress of scientific knowledge (if you think this, then you haven’t quite grasped the distinction I’m proposing here). But one must also learn to recognize the subset of our experience that is not suitable for scientific description. And one must accept that this subset of human experience is tremendously valuable (think about ethics, for instance — is that suitable to scientific description? Is this topic important?).

    I end this already too-long rant with a quote by a philosopher who was called a “logical positivist” despite the fact that his principal philosophical treatise is in fact an attempt to show the limitations of logical positivism (sure, made through logical positivism). I think it touches on the very fundamental point of recognizing the existence of things that are important and meaningful to us that don’t belong to the set of the factually true:

    “We feel that even if all possible scientific questions be answered, the problems of life have still not been touched at all.”

    ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein

    • I couldn’t say it better JC. I agree totally.

      I will point out that even those areas you describe – art, ethics, etc – can be understood through science. Why is one artist beloved and another not? Probably a complex set of factors that can be understood through history, social science, and psychology. The subjective human experience may be a topic of wonder and awe, but it’s not one of mystery – not in the “science can’t explain this” way that so many people would like to claim.

      Not that I think you would disagree with me on that; I just think it merits pointing out.

      Thanks again for a really insightful comment.

      • I do kinda disagree, though. “Science can explain everything” is a trick statement. I mean yes, science probably *can* be used to explain the complex social and psychological aspects of human life. What I claim is that such an explanation, while perfectly “true” in a rational sense, would not really be truly meaningful to us.

        I don’t want to be explained the neurological pathways that are chemically activated when I’m in grief. I want a way to live through my grief gracefully, to give it meaning in a way that helps me overcome it and that connects me with others. (And if we’re gonna use that scientific knowledge to produce a drug that can eliminate grief chemically -which we already kinda have-, then I’d be taking the cheap exit out of an experience that has the power to transform me. I don’t think there’s much merit in living like this.)

        Because science is completely devoid of ethics (and I do mean science itself, as an epistemological system, not its human application or practice), it contains no subjective *meaning*. On the contrary, *by design* it’s made only of objective, verifiable facts. Science is about what *is*. Religion is about giving arbitrary, yet humanly meaningful value to those things (and it’s necessarily related to ethics, then, which is about what *should be*).

        So putting subjective meaning into our lives is not something for which we should turn to science (and the point is not then to degrade science as a human activity – that would be like saying a hammer is a useless tool in general because it can’t cut).

        The bottomline is about recognizing the importance of the search for subjective, human meaning, in parallel and as a complement to the search for objective, empirical scientific facts. Science and religion are both valuable. In my opinion one lives more fully if one learns to understand what they are, in which sphere of human life they belong, and practices them together (each in its own way and for its own purpose).

        I again end with a quote, which gives an explanation of religion that I heartily agree with:

        “A person who is religiously enlightened appears to me to be one who has, to the best of his ability, liberated himself from the fetters of his selfish desires and is preoccupied with thoughts, feelings and aspirations to which he clings because of their super-personal value. It seems to me that what is important is the force of this superpersonal content … regardless of whether any attempt is made to unite this content with a Divine Being, for otherwise it would not be possible to count Buddha and Spinoza as religious personalities. Accordingly a religious person is devout in the sense that he has no doubt of the significance of those super-personal objects and goals which neither require nor are capable of rational foundation … In this sense religion is the age-old endeavor of mankind to become clearly and completely conscious of these values and goals and constantly to strengthen and extend their effect. If one conceives of religion and science according to these definitions then a conflict between them appears impossible. For science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be.”

        ~ A. Einstein, 1930.

        • I very like that closing quote. Go Albert.

          Again, I agree with you in substance, but with some caveats:

          1. You seem to be construing science as only the “hard” sciences; explaining grief in terms of chemical processes is indeed not very helpful to the grieving. But psychology and cognitive science actually develop very useful tools for (for example) coping with grief, and social and political science give us a lot of insight into (for example) ethics.

          2. There is a difference between saying “scientific explanation is not always satisfying” (I think we both agree with that) versus “science can’t explain everything.” The fact that we don’t find a factual explanation very comforting is not an indictment of its explanatory power.

          I think it’s that second point I really want to emphasize – while subjective human experience is indeed its own beast, I think people easily slip into therefore treating it as an unexplainable mystery, which doesn’t follow.

  2. As a scientist by trade, I find it fascinating how much “science” can be just another belief. I mean, we believe in evolution, or dark matter, or gravity, but few of us REALLY understand everything that goes into those effects. And, yes, theoretically, it is possible to learn everything there is to know about the effect; however, how many of us are really going to grasp the complicated tensor mathematics necessary to fully explain general relativity (i.e., where gravity comes from)?

    I think that science-believers would be well-served to remember that even some of their own beliefs are taken on faith, without really, fully understanding all of it. It might help us understand where the science non-believers are coming from. It’s also how I can be a scientist and still sit down and read tarot, or visualize a guide in meditation, or pray, or insist on preparing my herbal remedies at specific lunar phases. There are more things in heaven and earth. The beauty of science isn’t just that it will eventually explain everything, but that it finds new things it can’t explain almost as fast as it explains old things.

    • I think we differ on one point, BFB. I don’t think every individual needs to have a complex understanding of, say, genetics or biochemistry or physics to take science on more than faith. I may personally have an interest in learning about quantum phenomena, but I never plan on having the level of knowledge a theoretical physicist has – and that’s okay. Whenever my beliefs are based on the consensus opinion of the majority of peer-reviewed professional scientists, my beliefs enjoy the level of accuracy and certainty that those informed scientists enjoy – regardless of my own personal ignorance. That’s a lot different than faith.

      Not everyone needs to be a scientist to have a scientific worldview.

      I love your closing statement:

      The beauty of science isn’t just that it will eventually explain everything, but that it finds new things it can’t explain almost as fast as it explains old things.

      Well said.

    • The difference, however, in the “belief in evolution” vs. the “belief in God” is that the former is conditioned to scientific, empirical evidence, while the latter is not (and shouldn’t be! If you’re looking for a rational foundation to religion -like Newton, Descartes and Voltaire did-, I think you’re missing the point!). They are two kinds of “belief” which are completely different, both in how they work and in what their purpose is.

      While I did study the mathematics of general relativity, I don’t really need to in order to accept that GR is valid theory. It only requires a measure of trust in the scientists who do and who’ve done the experiments — experiments which are detailed and described in scientific publications which I can obtain and study myself. And beyond this, technology is a living proof that science *does* work, even if I don’t understand it. There is solid, rational, empirical evidence that gravity is a useful description of nature.

      True “belief” comes in science in a different way. It comes in its philosophy, not in its actual body of thought. For instance, Naturalism, i.e., the philosophical stance that every aspect of the world of facts follows laws which can be explained rationally, is an epistemological axiom which we choose because it’s useful to do so.

      But the axioms themselves of science -take Newton’s Laws for instance- are not “true” beliefs in the sense that we did not have total liberty in choosing them. The validity of the election of axioms in the natural sciences is determined by the agreement of the theory produced from them with the empirical evidence available. Maybe this is why science contains no subjective meaning. Religion doesn’t work like this, of course, and so constitutes an entirely different meaning of the world “belief”.

      • Funny enough, we disagree at the premise and agree a the conclusion. To wit:

        If you’re looking for a rational foundation to religion -like Newton, Descartes and Voltaire did-, I think you’re missing the point!

        As a priest, I can say that my religion values having a rational basis and frankly I am uncomfortable with religions that do not value that. Theology is very important to me, both in the sense of making religion internally consistent and also in the sense of reconciling it with known facts, even if that means changing aspects of the religion.

        Bear in mind that rational is not a synonym for scientific.

        Yet:

        True “belief” comes in science in a different way. It comes in its philosophy, not in its actual body of thought. For instance, Naturalism…

        Exactly.

        (Interestingly, naturalism is itself a rational position but not one that has been—or likely can be—scientifically proven.)

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