A little over a hundered years ago most scientists thought that most natural phenomena were well-understood. Then came Albert Einstein, and a number of others, who greatly enlarged our vision of reality, to such an extent that few of us have really absorbed their discoveries yet. A friend sent me an article by Carlo Rovelli, a scientist who works in the field of quantum physics, and who notes that we haven’t made any comparable breakthroughs in at least the last 25 years. Why haven’t we?
Let’s begin by saying that science has been an excellent tool in expanding our understanding of life, this world, and the universe. Leonard Mlodonow points out, in War of the Worldviews, that Einstein’s theories became accepted because they better explained certain phenomena than Newtonian physics did, though Newton’s version was perfectly adequate in a lot of respects. Therefore, current scientific theory is simply the best picture of the universe and its processes that we’re able to formulate right now. To think that science can currently explain everything, or that it will be likely to in the near future, is unlikely. There’s always more to understand.
Some religious points of view contradict that idea, and by religious I don’t mean strictly religion as we usually think of it, but any idea we may have that we have uncritical faith in. That can extend into a lot of areas, and is the product of laziness and/or fear. While some Christian groups doubt Darwin’s theory of evolution or global warming, in general those people have the same faith in science as the rest of us. Which, as Rovelli is saying, doesn’t mean that science’s view is complete.
In my opinion, there was never any need for science and religion to become antagonistic. Einstein apprently felt the same way. Both religious and scientific people can be dogmatic, and dogmatism doesn’t well serve anyone who’s interested in discovering the truth. Leonard Mlodnow believes it to have been possible for life to have begun on earth without divine intervention, that once the building blocks were in place, natural processes can explain how life arose, differentiated, and evolved into the amazing complexity we see around us now. Maybe he’s right, but I’m dubious about that. The complexity begins with the DNA molecule, which is very complex indeed. A great deal of research has gone into DNA in the past half century or so, and a lot has been learned, but I doubt that it is yet completely understood. We may be able to clone, but to be able to artificially replicate DNA, I suspect, remains far beyond our abilities.
George Gurdjieff, a “religious” teacher born in the 19th century, cited the Sufis, usually associated with Islam, as being a religion which had taken beliefs and practices from a variety of sources, accepted what they could verify for themselves, and rejected what they couldn’t verify. Surely this was the scientific method, though we don’t ordinarily think of science in that context. I see no reason why we shouldn’t, though. Scientists have studied Buddhist monks, for example, with EEG’s, and found that their brains function differently from ordinary people’s. A practice like meditation having such an effect on the brain is an example of what Deepak Chopra calls “neuroplasticity”, which means that we can train our brains to operate and perceive on higher (or at least different) levels than they usually do. This may become increasingly important for human beings in general, if the problems we face are to be solved without terrifying destruction, though this may come anyway.
Rovelli’s thesis is that the reason no fundamental scientific discoveries have been made in the past few decades is because we have a mindset which says that we’re sure about certain things. What the truly great scientists have done is look at things from a different perspective. Rovelli gives as an example Anaximander, in ancient Greece, the first to say that the earth floats in space and doesn’t fall, that the sky is not only above us, but underneath us too. We now know that he was correct, but how did he arrive at this insight? How, for that matter, did Galileo and Newton learn to look at gravity as a phenomenon, rather than just something to be taken for granted? From these radical new views a great many follow-up ideas came.
One of my friends, some years ago, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He was an artist (unfortunately unable to do artwork now), and created a sort of combination painting/sculpture that showed a face with tears running down it peering out of a barred window–into a mirror. A very concise and cogent image, portraying not only depression, but also how our “selves” distort our perceptions. What do we focus on more than the wonderful, sad, terrifying, or triumphant, story of Me. When we look at the world around us, what do we see that we haven’t first seen in ourselves? I think this is what Rovelli is getting at. We can’t make new discoveries without seeing things in new ways, and it’s much easier to look at things the way everyone around us tells us to, than to learn how to see for ourselves.
This means that our “consensus reality” is also what the Hindus call Maya. That doesn’t mean that what we see isn’t real, but that we don’t see it as it really is. Rovelli says that science is not about certainty, but about explaining what we see as best we can now, with the readiness to discard mistaken formulations when it becomes clear that they ARE mistaken. To do this, we have to be impartial, which is difficult, because almost all of us have biases, and our biases are what drive our conflicts, as we currently see in contemporary politics.
Unbiased people would be willing to make the effort to understand the point of view of anyone disagreeing with them. But it often seems easier to merely denounce what we dislike, without even trying to understand. Thus, anyone who disagrees with me is evil, in some mileus practically by definition. This is little more than a way to make ourselves feel superior, and can be deadly, when backed up by force, of which we have many historical examples. It’s easy to call people unAmerican, unChristian, or unanything you like. That’s not an atmosphere that promotes creativity.
So real scientists are always turning over rocks to look under them, and revisiting explanations of things that don’t “feel” quite right. The most creative find new ways to look at things, and if these new ways approximate what’s really happening, they find new ideas and applications of these ideas.
The direct opposite of this is to decide what you already believe is true, and to combat anyone who doesn’t believe the same thing. That’s what politics is generally about, and it’s particularly true right now, when people can’t agree enough to compromise on anything, with any sort of good faith. There’s a reason for that. Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, saw a lot of different realities coexisting, and asked why anyone had to fight about which one was more “true.” It’s because anyone who gets to define reality for a large group of people obtains a lot of power. You only have to look at Communism and Nazism, to say nothing of less secular religions at any particular time, when to believe the wrong thing put your life in great danger.
That’s what we seem to be heading towards now. Insecurity makes people fearful and angry. They look for anything or anybody they can blame for their lives being unhappy, and punish that person or group. That’s what negative advertising is about in political campaigns, as well as bullying, in high schools or elsewhere. Truth may set us free, but it can also be terrifying to discover just what we are in the light of truth.