Are You Sure You Want to Reject Science?

by James Wallace Harris

Trigger Warning: Do Not Read While Flying

I assume we live in an objective reality understandable by the scientific method. There is a growing movement to reject science. Does that mean those people believe reality is explainable by something other than science? Or do science deniers assume reality is subjective and mutable by our thoughts, desires, and fears? What happens if science doesn’t explain an objective reality? What happens if we really do live in a reality where mind over matter rules?

I know science can produce inconvenient results, but do you really want to reject it? I can understand why the faithful rejects science, science invalidates their theories about life after death. I can also sympathize with business people who fear following scientific research means losing money. But still, do you really want to reject science? Hasn’t science created more wealth than faith?

What happens to our reality when everyone believes whatever they want?

First off, if you have doubts about science don’t get on an airplane. For hundreds of thousand of years Homo sapiens did not fly. Then we discovered science and took to the skies. If we were wrong about science, maybe flying really doesn’t work. If reality works by believing and we stop believing, what happens? If enough people stop believing in science will planes start falling from the skies?

Religion is based on faith. That means believing in believing is how things work. Do you really want to believe that? What if you’re lying in bed at night and imagine a monster is going to grab you and wad you into a bloody ball? Doesn’t rational thinking protect you from such dangers?

Whenever I’ve stood next to a jetliner I’ve marveled at its immense size and weight. It boggles my mind that science can explain how lift works, especially with something so massive. Yet, I put my faith in science even when it’s hard to believe. Science succeeds in so many millions of ways that I can’t believe it could be wrong even when I can’t understand.

What if the faithful are right, and it’s faith that makes things happen. If we lose faith in science, will that mean jets, televisions, computers, telephones, medicines, cars, and so on will stop working? Do you want to return to horses and plows? Do you want to bring back ghosts, demons, angels, pixies, devils, and all those other beings that science disproved? Do you want the world be be flat and just a few thousand years old?

What if mind over matter is true? What if technology works because we live in an age where Faith in Science works? Do you really want to stop believing in science and create a new age? I don’t believe it, but if you deny science, aren’t you believing that?

Back in the 1970s I got into a lot of New Age ideas. The foundation of those beliefs was mind over matter. Religions are based on the same principle. God created the world with the Word. If you take that to its logical conclusion, reality could be anything we imagined. That’s fine as long as you can maintain happy thoughts, but if your minds veers into darker ideas, it can get pretty damn scary. Think about the next time you’re 40,000 feet in the air. Don’t you actually prefer embracing cause and effect over the power of thoughts?

I decided way back then that I didn’t want to live in a reality ruled by mental power. I wanted reality to be objective rather than subjective. Of course, maybe I live in an objective reality because my mind subjectively built it that way, but I prefer not to even believe that. I want planes to fly because of the laws of nature, and not because of our shared beliefs.

Our species has a history of inventing explanations for reality. The only cognitive tool we’ve ever discovered that works in a consistent fashion is science. Magic, faith, religion, philosophy, gossip, conspiracy theories – all fail to produce consistent results – no matter how much we wish they could. Science has transformed our relationship with reality. Science isn’t easy to understand because reality is complex and thus hard to predict. Often the number of variables involve make it difficult for the statistical nature of science to be definite. But just look how we’ve improved weather prediction over the last several decades. Just consider how many diseases we’ve conquered. Just contemplate the marvels of technology. We can fly. Doesn’t the continual success of science validate it?

Just because science implies something you don’t want doesn’t mean disbelieving will alter the results. You don’t want to believe that – especially if you’re flying.

For those who believe in God, what if science is the way God works? In all religious texts, God or gods succeed because of magical abilities their believers can’t fathom. Faith is belief in the power of that magic. What if the belief in magic is wrong? What if reality isn’t ruled by magic, but science? People who reject science are people who believe in magical thinking.

The next time you’re flying in a jetliner, think about magical thinking. Does magic make it fly, or science.

But, like I said, decide before you get on the plane. Don’t think about it in flight – what if you decide wrong?

JWH

Why We Fail to Fix Our Large Problems

Today I read “Was the $5 Billion Worth It?” an interview with Bill Gates, Jr. at the Wall Street Journal, which asked him if he felt his money spent on fixing education in America was well spent.  Here is one significant reply:

Asked to critique these endeavors, Mr. Gates demurs: "I applaud people for coming into this space, but unfortunately it hasn’t led to significant improvements." He also warns against overestimating the potential power of philanthropy. "It’s worth remembering that $600 billion a year is spent by various government entities on education, and all the philanthropy that’s ever been spent on this space is not going to add up to $10 billion. So it’s truly a rounding error."

Every night when I watch the evening news I get depressed because we are facing so many huge problems that we can’t seem to fix, no matter how much money, effort and brain power we put into finding solutions.  We have education, the budget deficit, global warming, health care, unemployment, the economy, religious conflicts, over population, and the list goes on and on.  At first I was going to list the war in Afghanistan, but wars always seen to end someday, so they fix themselves – the problems I’m talking about are the ones that never get fixed and we argue over the solutions our entire lives.

If we spend $600 billion a year on education, how come education in America is seen as a huge honking failure?  Today I read that only 12% of the American public believes in evolution and that around 50% believe that Jesus is due to return to Earth sometime soon.  Is that a failure of the education system, or does it show a basic inability for the average person to learn.

But if you look at our big problems there is one consistent factor that few people want to address, and that is we’re polarized over how we view the fundamental working of reality.  Essentially there are two philosophical opposing groups which I’ll label Science versus the Faithful.

The largest group are the metaphysical believers – people that think the Earth is our temporary home while God decides our true destination.  They believe Earth is the center of God’s creation and humans are his chosen beings, and this life is a test of our souls.

The other group, sees the universe as being very old and very big, and the Earth and humans are insignificant compared to the rest of the cosmos.  They see reality working by very exact laws that can be discovered through science and mathematics.  These people believe our lives are only as important as we make them for ourselves. 

God’s faithful, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, or the many spiritual followers of Eastern religions believe in ancient holy books, written before science or history.  These spiritual texts can’t coexist with science.  The worshipers of these books firmly believe the key to metaphysical reality is within their scriptures.  Most of the faithful accept the tenets of their beliefs after only a brief exposure to their basic concepts.  Believing is very easy.  Giving up these beliefs are very hard.

The followers of science believe knowledge is vast and to understand reality requires reading hundreds of books.  They are the believers in good liberal educations, which means it takes twenty years of solid study to get a decent grasp on reality.  Learning is very hard, and it’s so easy to forget.

The faithful believe much of education is a waste, and that a good deal of it are lies.  They refuse to believe in evolution because they can’t comprehend it and because they intuitively understand it invalidates their most cherish belief, that we have souls that can exist in an afterlife.  They refuse to believe in global warming because they can’t comprehend the science and because they believe this life is not important, but the next one, an eternal life in paradise should be our ultimate concern.

It’s probably more than obvious that I’m on the side of science.  The really good question is:  If we were all on the side of science, could we solve the really big problems we face?  I think so.  But I know the faithful also believe if everyone believed the tenets of their holy books the world would be a beautiful place too.

I wish there was some kind of compromise so we could make everyone happen, but there isn’t.  The strange thing is the faithful think Earth is of no value, so why can’t they let us have this world since we loved it so much more.  The faithful should live like the Amish, pursuing simple lives, following their spiritual disciplines until they die.  I can’t understand why the faithful want to run this world when it matters so little to them in their philosophy.  Why do they want political power when they should be seeking piety.

Here a logic puzzle. 

We have four possible paths – two real actions betting on two choices.

  1. Global warming is a fact, we fix things
  2. Global warming is a fact, we don’t fix things
  3. Global warming is a scam, we fix things anyway
  4. Global warming is a scam, we don’t do anything

There are four results.

  1. We save the world
  2. We kill off civilization
  3. We get an energy efficient society
  4. We save some money

If the scientists are wrong the worse thing that could happen is we end up with a very energy efficient society.  If the client deniers are wrong, we end up living in hell.  No logical person would place their bets that lead to result 2.

Yet, for many in our society action 2 is where they want to place all their chips.  And is it any wonder that most of these same people are also desiring the end of the world by wishing for the return of Jesus.  Do they think the Rapture is brought on by overheating?

We will never solve our big problems as long as we’re polarized between science and faith, and neither side seems willing to change.

Someone needs to create a religion where the path to heaven lies in mastering science.  Has none of the faithful ever wondered if their purpose on Earth is to figure out the mysteries of reality?  I guarantee there are plenty of clues if you’re willing to study science.

JWH – 7/25/11

The Tree of Life (2011)–Grace versus Nature

Terrence Malick’s new film, The Tree of Life is quite polarizing for its audiences.  NPR is even reporting that a small percentage of viewers walk out on the film and some of those ask for their money back.  Now I’ve walked out on a number of films over the decades and I can understand many reasons for not wanting to finish a movie.  There is no way to know why people leave before The Tree of Life is over, but I wonder if any do for philosophical reasons.  This is a philosophical movie, but I also found it immensely entertaining, beautiful to watch, and never boring.  This is one of the most ambitious films I’ve ever seen.  It makes me think of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed.  Another film about naturalism.

The Tree of Life attempts to answer one of the most difficult spiritual questions in philosophy:  Why do bad things happen to good people.  The film begins by telling us that life is a battle between grace and nature.  Throughout the film we hear the character pray to God asking for guidance, forgiveness,  understanding and meaning, and when a son and brother dies, his parents and siblings suffer greatly, partly at the loss, but mostly for not understanding why.

The film quotes The Book of Job, and has a scene where a pastor gives a excellent sermon on Job.  Job is one of the most complex stories in the Bible.  Many of the faithful have given up belief in God trying to understand “Why do the righteous suffer?”

I do not live by faith, but I like the word grace.  Terrence Malick shows the history of the universe in this film, making a good case for evolution is part of reality.  The faithful believe we are here by the grace of God, but I believe we are here by the grace of evolution.  Our universe is immense in size and ancient in age, and our lives are a miracle of unintentional consequences.  I think the word grace applies to that too.  I also believe the most sophisticated of spiritual philosophers accept evolution and incorporate it into their philosophy.

The difference between the faithful and those who accept evolution is life after death.  The faithful want to believe that no matter how much suffering we experience in this life, it will be soothed by the life we get after this one.  And Malick shows that in The Tree of Life.  I’ve wondered if some of the people who have walked out on this picture was because they thought Malick was selling evolution.  If they did, they should have stayed.  Malick sticks with faith all the way through, although it’s subtle, leaving room for some atheists to interpret the film differently.  All great fiction is ambiguous, so it’s unfair to suggest my views as the only views of this story.

Here’s the thing, for most of the faithful, suffering can only be made sensible if there is life after death, either through rewards or punishment.  To those who side with nature, suffering is just part of life.  There is no philosophical problem for atheists, because we don’t believe God is making us suffer.  The hardest thing for the faithful to endure is to believe that God is making them suffer.  Thus the story of Job.

The evolution of liberal thought is one that fights suffering directly by trying to make living in this life better for all.  Malick doesn’t go there at all.  This is a deeply spiritual movie in the sense that it is totally metaphysical.  Striving to do better is shown to cause suffering as illustrated by the role of the father played by Brad Pitt.

This movie is not for people who want escapism.  I’m not sure this movie is even for young people.  Terrence Malick was born in 1943, he’s not a baby boomer, but like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, he’s of the generation that speaks to the baby boomers.  I’d say anyone who grew up in the 1950s America should watch this film if they have a philosophical bent, it’s a film about and for us.

This trailer will give a hint at what The Tree of Life is like, but only the slightest of one.

This rather enigmatic web site gives more scenes from the movie, but you need a lot of patience to try out all the rather short clips.  Go see the film for the full cinematic rollercoaster ride.

JWH – 7/4/11