My Faith in Science
I was raised secular—with faith only in the authority of science. But I’ve been having a bit of a crisis of faith. Come on guys, where is that 90% of dark matter you keep talking about? Does it really make sense to keep reducing the universe to an ever-expanding multitude of “elementary” particles? Does it make sense to reduce the universe to anything? So many of my scientist friends who are oblivious and dogmatic when talking about non-scientific matters. Are they equally oblivious and dogmatic in their specialties? Are there any more great theories like plate tectonics that have been languishing around for decades without getting recognition? Experimental and evolutionary psychology seem so far from understanding how the brain works that it is not even funny. I am tired of reading tautological analyses in which contemporary norms are used as standards for understanding how the brain works and how we evolved, which is then used to prove that contemporary norms are natural and right. Nutritional science is better, but not by much. And don’t even get me started on fields like economics and political science.
Two things keep me from leaving the church. One is that science keeps on churning out amazing technical technical achievements. TVs, cell phones, airplanes, lasers, microchips, trips to the moon. How amazing is that? These successes don’t always have the results that were intended (see the reference to clueless dogmatism above). But there is no doubt that, in the mid- to long-run, the experimental method is brilliant at solving narrowly-defined problems. I’m a little bit embarrassed by this. It is like believing in miracles—mistaking a method and technical proficiency as proof of the validity of a whole cosmological order.
But the thing that most keeps me reading the sermons is that science produces the most mind-blowing mystical visions around. Black holes, the big bang, string theory, multiple dimensions, multiple universes, quantum indeterminacy, general relativity, complexity and power laws, autocatalytic processes, plate tectonics, the evolution of species, billion-year time frames, things that happen in infinitesimal fractions of seconds, trillions of stars in billions of galaxies–and even more atoms in the human body, matter made up mostly of space, the speed of light, life programmed onto DNA, the amazing complexity and plasticity of brains, the simultaneous holism and functional differentiation of all matter. That stuff is so great. It doesn’t have to be true. Just the conceptual possibilities of these things open my soul far more than any painting, church, movie or everyday practical concern. It almost makes me want to learn math.
But faith in science has some serious shortcomings. It tends more towards argumentative dogmatism than loving embrace. Its symbolic repertoire is a bit dry and unfulfilling when used to frame practical life. Skeptical inquiry is useful, but is hardly the basis of a fulfilling or meaningful life. A strong commitment to using scientific methods and findings to improve our lives is more likely to make us anal retentive and obsessive compulsive as to make us happy and healthy. Also, science provides few, if any, deep emotional, spiritual and mystical revelations—except perhaps for the occasional math adept and high priest in the laboratory. It’s mostly intellectual, an incomplete approach to life. And science has no good advice for how to deal with death. It only teaches us how to fear and delay it.
But where would I be without science? The Buddhist and Hindu stuff, while appealing, never quite sticks. Nor does the Jungian stuff (especially in its pretenses towards science). Non-sectarian enlightenment? Sex and psychedelics? It seems a bit reckless just to jump off without having a roadmap. Especially for somebody like me, who was raised in the certainties of science. . . . . But perhaps that is the only way to do it . . . .