On Science & Religion

It is commonly claimed that science can provide us with morality.  That the only morals which we need for our collective flourishing can be solidly justified by science and science alone.  ‘Science,’ here, is often invoked loosely, without much explanation of what sort of specific scientific evidence or method or philosophy or ideology provides adequate ‘scientific’ support for some form of morality—for how we should live.

What’s often missed here is that science is concerned with what is, whereas morality is concerned with what should be.  I have found no better brief explanation of this essential, yet often overlooked, difference than in Albert Einstein’s following comments (italics original):

“For the scientific method can teach us nothing else beyond how facts are related to, and conditioned by, each other. The aspiration toward such objective knowledge belongs to the highest of which man is capabIe, and you will certainly not suspect me of wishing to belittle the achievements and the heroic efforts of man in this sphere. Yet it is equally clear that knowledge of what is does not open the door directly to what should be. One can have the clearest and most complete knowledge of what is, and yet not be able to deduct from that what should be the goal of our human aspirations. Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source.”

On Listening

Listening is good medicine.  Sometimes it is even the best medicine.  Sometimes our deepest pains and depressions survive, not because we lack ‘solutions,’ but because we do not feel really listened to.  In such a noisy, talkative time as ours, when spaces of safety and silence are ever-vanishing, we frequently forget that there is power in being quiet and listening—power to deepen, to connect, to heal great wounds.  We forget the power that exists in demonstrating that we care about what others care about, that we are concerned about what others are concerned about, that we wish to bear what others are bearing.  Truly much freedom and healing and belonging can be borne out of listening deeply, listening intently, listening generously.

On Learning & Education

One of our biggest problems today is we’ve believed in our own greatness and infallibility.  We believe that we are the enlightened ones, the rational ones, the modern ones, the progressive ones, the right ones.  Our worst enemy is often our outrageous hubris.  We are the most literate, educated generation in history.  We live in the time in which PhDs are a dime-a-dozen.  We think that we really know what’s what, because we’ve studied political theory and social psychology and we’ve learned a bunch of impressive five-dollar-words.

And yet.  I am shocked at the number of ‘educated people’ who won’t read something, anything, that doesn’t simply reinforce their own opinions.  I am shocked at how often educated people will immediately scoff at something they know nearly nothing about.  I am shocked at the number of times I’ve attempted to have honest conversations with educated people about things that matter which abruptly end, not with arguments, but with parroted prejudices and ‘party lines.’

We’ve trusted in the sacredness of our academic institutions, believing that they are holy and beyond error.  So if they taught it and we learned it, then we must be right.  But we’ve so often learned ideology, conformity, elitism, and right-prejudice instead of critical thinking and honest inquiry.  Indoctrination has frequently been equated with learning, conformity with critical thought, learned contempt with open inquiry, empty vanity with real intelligence.  But the worst part is we’ve learned this confused curriculum while also assuming that we are critical thinkers and honest inquirers.  Hopefully we haven’t become so tangled up in our beloved incoherence that we cannot escape from the mess we’ve made.  But escaping would first require us to want to—and what would motivate us to really want to untangle our cherished pretenses and self-deceits?

What’s most ridiculous is how common it is to be a member of the most ‘learned generation’ and to not have a real passion for learning.  I want to know how this came to be.  I want to know how it became possible to be ‘smart’ without having a sense of curiosity, a real hunger for inquiry.

On Christian Life & Discipleship

One of the most challenging tasks of the Christian life, of any true spiritual life, is learning to channel one’s will.  First, though, one needs to really know one’s will, because you can’t channel what you don’t even know or understand.  Usually what’s discovered in the earliest expeditions into exploring one’s deepest desires and longings is a great deal of confusion.  Left neglected, the will lives by instinct, often willing whatever might bring immediate gratification, moment to moment.  So inward ambivalence, division, and uncertainty are common things to encounter when one first encounters a neglected will.

But with persistence, clarity comes, albeit gradually.  Clarity comes through committed introspection and contemplation.  Sometimes we can’t do this without first slowing down, stopping, and really taking stock of ourselves.  But clarity also comes through developing and exercising the will, by striving to live with greater intentionality in day-to-day life.  It’s incredibly important to face one’s will in the spiritual life.  Because it’s possible to know the right things, to feel the right things, and still not do the right things.  Claiming to know and feel the right things without caring much about doing the right things is the essence of hypocrisy.  It’s not practicing what you preach.  It’s not living out what you profess.  It’s not really believing what you know.  Because belief is an expression of the will, something that is supposed to supported with actions.  If it’s not supported with actions, then it’s not really believed.

Jesus cared immensely about our wills.  He taught and modelled his teachings intending to really impact people, to really change people.  What we do, desire, want, and will is a huge theme that’s littered throughout his teachings and stories.  He wasn’t simply communicating abstract head-knowledge.  He encouraged people to embrace a new way of thinking and living.  So in his Discourse on the Hill (as Dallas Willard refers to it), Jesus wraps up his extraordinary ethical teachings by saying things like, ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.’  And things like, ‘everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.’

Just giving lip-service to God is apparently not enough according to Jesus.  Because God’s ultimate desire is for us to want him, for us to want to follow him, for us to want to become better people—the kind of people who increasingly resemble Jesus in the things we say and the things we do.  This doesn’t mean that God’s love for us hinges on us doing everything perfectly.  The notion that we must earn God’s love before he will give it goes against much of what Jesus taught and how he lived.  But it does mean that God cares about us trying to live as he does; about us being persistent, tenacious, committed.  Because our minds, hearts, and wills are designed to cooperatively work together, undivided, by design.

But, before one can seriously follow through with any of this, one has to really want to discover their desires to begin with, in order to really know them and, hopefully, guide and follow them.  Put another way, one has to willfully seek to understand their will.  This takes time and effort.  Discovering the will’s place and power and pursuits is really a lifelong journey.  But it is a worthwhile journey that is at the heart of the Christian life.

On Religion

What would you say if someone were to tell you that they think science is dangerous and worthless because of all the destruction that has been caused by it?  Because we got things like the atom bomb thanks to advancements in science.  What would you say if someone were to tell you that they despise science entirely because of the evils that were caused through research and testing in eugenics?

Speaking for myself, I would want to say a couple of things.  Hating everything to do with science for these reasons requires a lot of sloppy all-or-nothing thinking.  This is pretty plain.  I mean, sure, scientific knowledge and progress has been used to cause some immense harm over history.  But it has also been the source of amazing progresses in medicine, in technology, in our understanding of the natural world, among other things.  Another important nuance that should be thrown into the mix is that pseudoscience is possible and real.  Eugenics is widely considered to have been pseudoscientific work because its main principles were not well supported by empirical evidence.  And yet it flourished for a time.

I think most would readily see the holes in this sort of blanket attack on science.  Yet the same kind of all-or-nothing thinking can be frequently found in contemporary polemics against religion.  Many anti-relgion critics will attack religion, wholesale, with the most shockingly narrow tunnel vision in some instances.  Either because of intention or ignorance (it’s impossible for me to know which, but I’m not sure which is worse), many polemicists narrowly restrict their focus to the dark side of religious history, firing fury and vitriol at outrageously selective targets.  Now don’t get me wrong: an honest, thorough reading of history shows that every major religious tradition has blood on its hands.  And this is a sobering reality that deserves to be faced by everyone with a religious commitment.  But, when we pull the camera back for a panoramic view of human history, one thing that becomes painfully obvious is it’s possible to use almost anything—from religion to politics to science to business to technology to friendship to sex—for good or for evil.  We’d be terribly negligent to not recognize this.  Accordingly, we’d be terribly negligent to not recognize and respect the many ways that religion has motivated people to actively work for good and human flourishing throughout history.

There is another necessary nuance that is often absent from the attacks of anti-religion polemicists.  Just as science can be co-opted by pseudoscience, religion can be co-opted by pseudoreligious motives and ends.  And yes, I know, different people will have different opinions about what true religion really is—we live in a world where there isn’t complete, unanimous consensus about what the truest religion is within the community of those who identify as ‘religious’ (and the same goes for science, though many wish to ignore it).  Just as the work of eugenicists gained influence for a time because it was validated with the powerful brand name of ‘science,’ people have committed atrocities ‘in the name of God’ by backing their violent interests with some stamp-of-religious-approval.

Carefully comparing the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s followers with the claims, conduct, and character of a religion’s founder is crucial when it comes to wading through the messy matters of separating religion from pseudoreligion.  For instance, if the founder taught love and a follower is teaching hate, or if the founder taught peace and a follower is teaching violence, then there’s good reason to think that there’s something fishy going on.  In other words, there’s good reason to hold out the possibility that the follower’s religion is not the same as the founder’s religion; that the follower has used the founder’s ‘brand’ to back their own pseudoreligious aspirations.  Sometimes these sort of inconsistencies are painfully apparent.  Sometimes serious study is needed to see them.  Either way, this work is essential and worthwhile if we are to take religion seriously.

On Science & Religion

The vast majority of scientific knowledge is taught, shared, learned, and believed on some basis of authority.  This practice of passing on scientific knowledge on some basis of authority occurs in many ways, in many places.  It occurs within the formal domains of researchers and students of the sciences.  It occurs within the informal domains of armchair science enthusiasts, promoters, and TedTalk lovers.  Yet this epistemological convention is often overlooked, even ignored sometimes.  Likely because the sciences have—to a great extent, deservedly—gained such a high reputation because their knowledge is supposed to be supported by the observation and experience of at least someone, somewhere, at sometime.  And I’m certainly not suggesting that we should always mistrust the findings of research scientists who might speak as authorities, especially if we determine that they are trustworthy through our own careful scrutiny and crosschecking.  But what we should notice, at the very least, is how much scientific knowledge is shared and accepted on some basis of authority.

If this surprises you, just think about the ways a science student accumulates knowledge over the course of their studies: they’ll have the odd lab, the odd research assignment, maybe they’ll even go on to specialize and perform some new research of their own, accompanied by a thesis.  But at every stage, the vast majority of knowledge that they gain in school doesn’t come through their own direct observation and experience, but through some other source—perhaps in the form of a textbook, an article, a professor, a peer, a supervisor, a literature review, and so on.  Likewise, even a research scientist will have gained a very slim percentage of their total scientific knowledge through their own direct observation and experience over the course of their career.

In the natural sciences, like in many human endeavours, we depend on the work of others to an astounding degree.  One reason we depend on the work of others in life is we can accomplish greater things together than we can separately, all on our own.  This is one of the great stories of human civilization.  So, like many of our communal endeavours, scientists strive to work together so they can progress and advance and build on the work of their predecessors and peers, in the shared hope that what they achieve will be a benefit to humanity.  Accordingly, researchers will share their work through books, journals, lectures, conferences, conversations, and so on.  When we (scientists and armchair enthusiasts, included) unreservedly accept knowledge from sources like these, we do so under the impression that they are trustworthy sources, and thus trustworthy authorities.

Hopefully we take the time and effort to determine that authoritative sources of knowledge are worthy of our trust through carefully crosschecking the knowledge they share against our own  reason and experience, and against other authorities.  But often we don’t.  Because it’s possible, even easier, to not bother with these sorts of rigours.  And realistically, if we thoroughly assessed the sources of every single bit of knowledge we’ve embraced, we wouldn’t get much done—at least quickly.  Because it would take multiple lifetimes to do this exhaustively.  So we exercise measures of trust in many ways and places in life, by necessity.

When we are presented with some scientific knowledge, we have a series of choices for who and what we will place our trust in, and how much trust we will exercise.  Hopefully we do some honest digging and thinking and crosschecking before exercising our trust—but it’s surprisingly easy to skip over this, because it’s not like sloppy-learning-alarms will immediately begin to blare, giving us away, if we don’t.  So for instance, we might choose to immediately trust the findings we’re presented with at face value, no questions asked.  Or we might inquire about the researcher and then we might choose to trust in their impartiality, in their guiding assumptions and hypothesis, in their critical capacities, in their analysis of their findings.  Or we might choose to trust them because of their academic credentials or because of the reputation of their institution (which are often enough to elicit the average person’s trust, these days).  Or we might press further and then choose to trust in the reliability empirical methods, and trust that such methods were applied in a careful, controlled manner.  Or we might choose to trust the findings because we trust the people who participated in the peer-review process.  Or we might choose trust in all of the people, assumptions, methods, analysis, and selective publishing that’s involved, perhaps even imagining that such a finely-tuned-research-machine will guarantee that the knowledge it produces will be without error.

Many who like to think of themselves as ‘scientific’ cringe at words like ‘trust’ and ‘believe’ and ‘faith,’ usually because they seemingly assume they are beyond such silliness.  But trust is, to varying extents, what we functionally exercise even when we accept experience-based, empirically-tested knowledge that we did not personally experience and test ourselves.  And an authority is not automatically bad, as some seem to assume.  It is possible for an authority to be good or bad, trustworthy or untrustworthy.  But it remains authority, either way.  And this is what needs to be noticed more often and more readily.

At this point, some object.  Some object because they believe that scientific knowledge is guaranteed to be free from errors and mistakes; that scientific knowledge is strictly hard facts with no unnecessary fat or filler.  Because isn’t there a rigorous, peer-review process performed within the scientific community that ensures that ‘scientific knowledge’ shared on authority is totally true and trustworthy?  Yes, the peer-review process aims to reduce errors.  It aims to do this through subjecting a project’s hypothesis, methods, findings, analysis, and so forth, to additional checks.  And it is a good system of scrutiny.  But we would be naively optimistic to think that our scientific assumptions, methods, knowledge, theories, and paradigms are guaranteed to be infallible since they are the products of fallible human beings—like it or not.  What’s more, it would be sloppy of us to not see the amount of interpretation, imagination, conjecture, hypothesizing, metaphor, and even story-telling that goes into our—supposedly rigorous—scientific endeavours.

The bottom line is, we trust in the work and findings of others in many, many ways, even in the sciences.  When we do this, the person or group or textbook or article or TedTalk video or whatever else becomes an authoritative source of knowledge for us.  It is incredibly important to notice the pervasiveness of this convention of knowledge sharing since ‘science’ is often treated with a deep kind of piety these days.  Accordingly, scientists are often functionally revered as our current high priests; as holy people who are possessors of holy knowledge that is wholly perfect and beyond questioning.  It should be emphasized that honest, hard-working scientists do deserve a great deal of respect.  The work they do is incredibly valuable and they deserve to be esteemed for it.  But they should not be treated as infallible authorities since they, like us all, are limited, fallible, complicated human beings.  But somehow ‘science’ has often gained a powerful ethos that does not always matchup with the way things actually are.  What’s more, it is ironic when we treat scientists like a holy order since scientific methods and sensibilities are supposed to guard against piously revering people in positions of prestige and power.

What’s needed is for science to be seen for what it is: the systematic study and accumulation of knowledge about nature undertaken by groups of fallible humans who greatly rely on the cumulative work performed by their predecessors and peers.

On Science & Religion

Science is often conceived of as an ‘it’; as a perfectly-tuned knowledge-machine.  But it’s not.  It is a collective endeavour, a method of inquiry, a pursuit of knowledge, that is performed by people.  The notion that ‘science’ is an entirely objective source of entirely objective knowledge is one of our most cherished modern myths.  We like to imagine that science gives us a perfectly objective understanding of ourselves and the world; a real God’s-eye-view of things.  This belief can even provide comfort to those who find mystery, confusion, and uncertainty to be uncomfortable—maybe even unbearable.  And like a mythological deity, science has accordingly become the great Comforter and Saviour of many.  But, to be blunt, we’d be deluding ourselves if we believe that our scientific work is absolutely objective, free of even the smallest shreds of subjectivity.

To be sure, objectivity is the aim of science, in principle.  But it is highly questionable that we have ever or will ever achieve this in our scientific practices.  Because our scientific work is saturated with subjectivities at every stage since it is done by subjects, not objects; it is done by human beings, not truth-seeking-robots.  (And even if science could be done by such robots, we’d require someone who knew the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, to properly program these machines so they’d know what to seek.  But I digress…)

Now, I should emphasize, science is certainly a valuable, worthwhile human endeavour through which we continue to learn many valuable, worthwhile things.  What’s more, I’m not suggesting that our scientific work should always be scrutinized in the spirit of some ridiculously radical skepticism.  But, it is ironic when people who pride themselves on being ‘scientific’ aren’t the least bit skeptical, or even just curious, about the nature and limits of our scientific pursuits of knowledge.  And there is an unrealistic view that science is perfectly objective even in practice that is surprisingly widespread—and this view deserves some skeptical pushback.  Because, in its absolute forms, it is a belief that is not based in reality.