Divine Understanding

A friend asked my opinion on this article at tricycle.com: A Question of Faith. Fair warning: as a response, this is just a bunch of thoughts related to the article.  It is kind of rambling, and long, and doesn’t have a real clear thesis.

Here we go.

First, my analysis of the article is pointless without first squaring a problem of definitions. First, the author states a useful idea that I agree with:

At the creative heart of science is a spirit of open-minded inquiry. Ideally, science is a process, not a position or a belief system. Innovative science happens when scientists feel free to ask new questions and build new theories.

For clarity, I will refer to this ideal process as “science.” Contrasted with this, the author speaks of another thing. He doesn’t spell it out directly, but this quote gets at the issue:

The spirit of inquiry has continually liberated scientific thinking from unnecessary limitations, whether imposed from within or without. I am convinced that the sciences, for all their successes, are being stifled by outmoded beliefs.

Here the author faults scientists for limiting themselves according to contemporary paradigms, and seems to think there is a serious problem with the fact they continually make progress.

This deserves some criticism. The author defines science as a process which builds new theories, then describes the processing and refinement of its theories as a corruption! This is analogous to defining running as linear human motion from a given point, then criticizing the runner’s “running-ness” when he is later in a different point. If change within prescribed bounds is part of a definition, then change within those bounds cannot be held to violate the definition.  The author plays loose with which version of “science” he is criticizing.

For the sake of clarity though, let’s examine what he elsewhere describes as idealogically-driven science. I would not be the first to call this “scientistry.” I see this as a sort of hubris (one of my favorite words) that comes in two compatible flavors:

  1. The belief that the process has reached an “end” and what is known is both perfect and complete. (Remember “perfect and complete,” we’ll revisit this later.) This is the benign form of scientistry. It leads to things like the calls for the shuttering of the patent office.
  2. The belief that the end result of the process is already known, and that we merely need to fill in the gaps to get there. This is the malignant form of scientistry. It leads to concentration camp experiments to “prove” racial superiority/inferiority, and to the embarrassing debacle that climate change “research” has become.

It is easy to see where the author finds “blind-faith, self-righteousness, and intolerance” in the realm of scientistry. I don’t disagree with him. But this isn’t an indictment of science.

The author also tries to draw equivalency between faith in science and faith in religion. Here, again, I believe he is being ambiguous in an attempt to prove a point.

I’ve already described the issue of faith within scientistry, so now I will address faith within science proper. The equivalency that most religious types tend to draw goes like so:

“Well, you’ve never seen God firsthand, but have you ever seen an atom firsthand? How do you know that DNA contains a blueprint for an organism; have you ever seen a cell consulting its nucleus for direction?…” and so on.

The error here is one of false equivalency. It is true that no individual scientist has ever reproduced all experiments ever performed in the course of deriving the body of knowledge he basis his work upon. Newton freely acknowledged that he “stood on the shoulders of giants.” Yet in the course of the process of science, inaccuracies in the passed down knowledge will be discovered. Inconsistencies such as these lead to Kuhn’s paradigm shifts. And, thought he hasn’t reproduced those experiments and results, others have. And, if he was so inclined, he could too, re-validating all acquired human knowledge for as far as he could get until he died of old age. The scientist is trusting that his assumptions are true for the purpose of his experiment, but remains upon to a change in belief based on his experience. And he has the option to actively seek to validate his beliefs through experiments and observation.

In this light, it should be clear that a scientist’s “faith” in observable, falsifiable assertions about the world is significantly different than a religionist’s “faith” in unobservable, unfalsifiable assertions about the world. In the first case, the issue is the limitations of the observer, in the second case, the issue is the limitations of the observed.

This is a good point to tease out a definition, that of scientific materialism. I believe the author and I both agree that scientific materialism is a worldview which breaches the boundary delineated above: when the scientific method of observation is trained on the unobservable. From a contradiction, anything can follow, and it isn’t particularly fruitful to detail the myriad ways this can go wrong. I only pause to recognize that this is where scientific materialists conclude that the unobservable does not exist, which is admittedly a fallacy of falsifying an unfalsifiable. It is, however, instructive that such beliefs (if they are to have legitimacy, at least), are described as “revealed religions,” which appeal to an unchallengeable authority of long ago rather than to repeatable observations. (After all, a group which creates its own unfalsifiable beliefs is derided as a “cult,” rather than celebrated as a religion.)

Having sorted these things out, this quote seems like the next thing worth analyzing:

What is the relationship between the many successes of science and what you see as the current situation of its inflated and unfulfilled promises? Materialism provided a seemingly simple, straightforward worldview in the late 19th century, but 21st-century science has left it far behind. Its promises have not been fulfilled, and its promissory notes have been devalued by hyperinflation.

First, this clearly smells of scientistry of the second type; the one that makes promises of future discoveries. It would be worth disregarding for this reason alone, but there is a reason I hesitate to ignore it as well. That reason is a sense of disappointment.

This disappointment is what I see as the root of postmodernism. Modernity promised that all human problems had technological, scientific answers. I think of The Jetsons and The World of Tomorrow-style cartoons as examples of modernism ideas being expressed in a modernist age. Once technology failed to provide these answers (but not before it made us fabulously wealthy! <link postmodernism series>), society swung to the other extreme; the idea that all truth is relative and ultimately no answers are to be had.* Ironically, the effects of this idea are almost indistinguishable from the effects of reductionism the author warns us about.
(*Also ironically, I suspect that in the end, science will actually provide some of those answers and the much-maligned human biodiversity movement will come to discover that many “subjective” parts of human experience are actually the result of objectively observable genetic differences. After all, what sense does it make to claim, for example, that sexual orientation is a subjective experience if it is guided by objectively determined and observable genetics?)

It is also with no small amount of irony that the author refers to scientists as “priests of progress.” There is nothing inherently ironic in this, so my remark requires (minimal) context. Nearly the entire Western world (and therefore, I assume, the author and the majority of his readers) believe in “progress” the very progress he derides! He is on solid ground while speaking from an Eastern tradition that believes that the world was born pristine and has been corrupted over time and will eventually be destroyed and reborn. But the predominant view of history in the West is one of progress. From hunter-gatherers to city-states to nations, democracy, the end of slavery, universal suffrage, human rights, LGBTQ rights, and beyond, Progressives believe that the world is…well…progressing! Getting better! And to complete the ironic image, consider the only other creed in America which at all parallels Eastern history. That’s right: fundamentalist Christians who believe humanity began pure in the Garden of Eden ~6000 years ago and are surviving increasing corruption until the Second Coming of Jesus Christ which will usher in the Apocalypse and the salvation of His loyal followers. Good thing progressive hipsters like irony, right?

At this point, as my final asides, I will point out both that:

  • A large-ish body of thought has been written about the idea of Progressivism as a religion (these links being my personal favorites:)
  • Progressivism inexorably leads to a single, forcefully imposed, “scientific” doctrine of everything.  The author seems to recognize this with respect to science/religion, but I doubt he appreciates its political aspects. (Or he may truly be a socially conservative Western English-speaking Buddhist. And a unicorn)  See:
    • An Open-Letter to an Open-Minded Progressive.  (Cntl-F and start at, “What one word, dear progressives, best describes the modern Western system of government?” and read through the section on “public policy”.)

But, much like Arlo Guthrie only really meant to talk about the draft, I didn’t really write to say all of the above things. I wrote to share a different set of ideas.

Let’s get back to where I left off near the beginning, with “perfect and complete knowledge.”

In his book “Imagined Communities,” Benedict Anderson discusses how several Western institutions shaped the colonial world. Among these was the modern, Western use of the map. The earliest maps often were simple pictographic depictions of local landmarks and the routes and distances between them. The world consisted largely of locations worth being nestled among locations not worth being. In the age of city states, the human perception of space was still that of a centralized relationship to the nearest city. The strength of relationship between hinterland and city was somewhat proportional to the distance involved. A village equidistant to two cities might have roughly equal relationships to both.

The modern Western map changed this. Cartographers no longer labelled only cities, landmarks, or regions; they drew borders on the map and associated complete ownership of all parcels of land to the capitol city associated with that parcel. In the process, two hypothetical villages two miles apart, on opposite sides of the border, came to “belong” to their respective capitals. By the time the cartographers were done, all land on Earth belonged to one capital city or another. This was done without regard for affiliation, relationship, or even if the claimed location was “a location not worth being.” There was no such thing as unclaimed land; only owned land which had yet to be explored. Everything was made neat and orderly: Britain owned this, Germany owned that, and so forth.

Anderson refers to this all-encompassing ownership as “totalizing classification.” It is, in a way, the metaphysical version of “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Viewed this way, the world was no longer a collection of cities nestled among the wilderness. In fact, there really was no “wilderness.” The authority of a state was theoretically just as strong on a desolate mountaintop as on the floor of Parliament. The world became “smaller.” For example, Americans living in Oregon and Maine both see Mexico as their “southern neighbor,” but erase international boundaries from the map and it hardly seems reasonable that residents of Portland and Augusta should share a common spatial perception of Mexico City.

Returning to the issue at hand, I’d like to borrow Anderson’s “totalizing classification” of land and apply it to sea monsters. Just as pre-mapped people understood the land around them as a relationship of tiny places worth being among large swaths of places not worth being, pre-modern people understood, say, animals, in terms of ones they had seen, and ones they had not. A fisherman understands fish; he sees them all the time. Perhaps the odd turtle is spotted on the beach every year. These things fit in the villager’s cosmogeny; the fish give birth to more fish, the turtles give birth to more turtles, and circle of life continues. But then a giant squid washes up on shore. The villagers have never seen such a thing before. Even the region’s itinerant medicine man has never seen such a thing. It does not fit in the village’s cosmogeny; they are uncertain where it came from, what it does, and how it ended up on their shore. Perhaps it gets called a Kraken and is understood to have been a one-off creation by a deity. Perhaps something else happens. But it is seen as an aberration, and one that will fade into a vague figure in oral history generations later.

Contrast this to a modern person encountering a beached giant squid. Although he has never personally seen one before, he has heard about them. He knows that they have washed up on shores all over the world, and that he is not the first to see one. He knows scientists have dissected dead ones, and recorded live ones under the sea. While they are rare, they give birth to subsequent generations just like every other creature. All this fits within our “perfect and complete knowledge.” No deity is needed to explain its seemingly ex nihilo origins.

Similarly, if a person were to encounter a thing he had never even heard of, he would likely place it somewhere within the totalizing classification of all the things he is familiar with. His instinct is to assume it has an equal place in the world with all other creatures, just as the modern geographer asserts that the Aleutian Islands have an equal place with Washington, DC as American soil.

Through this process of aggregating knowledge and eliminating “one-off” phenomenon, to the point that even novel observations are assumed to have a natural, rather than supernatural place in the observer’s cosmogeny, a great deal of wonder for the world has been lost. Through our understanding of the natural world, we have driven the divine out of it, and replaced it with our own knowledge. This particular elevation of human knowledge is a process that I’ve come to refer to as “divine understanding.” I see this as something different from materialism, which states that the physical world is all there is…it is a negative outlook that simply removes the supernatural. Divine understanding, to me, implies the simultaneous elevation of human knowledge, however cynically, to a divine state.

It is divine understanding that has turned the coca leaf from a gift of the gods enabling high-altitude living to an alkaloid stimulant. It is divine understanding that has turned rainbows into refractions of daylight through suspended water droplets. And, back to the author’s point, it is divine understanding that has reduced human emotions into series of electrical and chemical interactions within the neural and endocrine systems.

I am critical of the seeming triumph of divine understanding in modern attitudes though. Even outside of the realm of the supernatural, it seems off that a sense of wonder is ruined by greater understanding of its mechanisms. Is the rarity of the exotic materials used in spaceflight, and the precision with which they are shaped, and the accuracy with which their operation is timed, diminished in any way because we know where the materials were mined from, or who did the shaping, or the formulas which govern the timing of the various operations? (Put another way, how does “rocket fuel is made with ammonium perchlorate and potassium nitrate, by Haltermann Solutions in Texas, in ratio X:Y,” substantively different than “Bilbo’s shirt is made of Mithril, found in the mines of Moria, crafted by dwarves?” Why does one of these things seem mundane and the other epic?) Does the incredible effort involved in turning a plan into reality count for nothing? Is anyone capable of simultaneously envisioning every single process happening during a launch? In these regards, it seems to me that a sense of wonder should rightly remain, even if the mystery is gone.

This post sure went all over the place, but I’ll leave off as the same place as the author does.  He is concerned that scientific fundamentalism is a dangerous, ideological thing.  I have already responded to that; science as a process of truth-seeking is not an ideology – an a priori worldview into which observations are shoehorned – it is a process.  Ideological science, or “scientisty,” is of course dangerous, but it also isn’t science-as-a-process.  Scientific materialism, and the related idea of divine understanding, seem to conflate mystery and wonder, and by seperating them out I believe one can be scientific and truth-seeking while avoiding reductionism.


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