Just as there is a fundamental difference between divine Revelation itself and the understanding that believers have of it, so also there is a basic distinction between scientific fact and reasoning on the one hand and the conclusions or theories of scientists on the other. There is, and can be, no conflict between true religion and true science: true religion is revealed by God, while it is through true science that the mind of man “discovers the realities of things and becomes cognizant of their peculiarities and effects, and of the qualities and properties of beings” and “comprehendeth the abstract by the aid of the concrete”. However, whenever a statement is made through the lens of human understanding it is thereby limited, for human understanding is limited; and where there is limitation there is the possibility of error; and where there is error, conflicts can arise.
(A Compilation on Scholarship: Baha’i Reference Library)
This faculty of meditation frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.
This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. Through this faculty man enters into the very kingdom of God.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris Talks, page 175)
A Turning Point in Human History
At a critical period in the prehistory of humanity, traces of three trends can be found in the archaeological record at a level not previously seen: artistic activity, burial and advances in tool making. As the basis of his examination of the link he sees between this flowering of creativity and a vulnerability to problems of the mind, Horrobin summarises this turning point in the following terms (The Madness of Adam & Eve, page 19):
While our knowledge of our ancestors remains very limited, the artefacts that they left behind demonstrate a clear discontinuity in mind, if not in body, which occurred at some point between about 50,000 and 200,000 years ago.
Steven Mithen has proposed that the ability to make metaphors is close to the essence of being human, and close to the essence of art. It’s the ability to discover that something can be both itself and something else. . . . It could be that our attainment of it was the crossing of a threshold from the archaic to the modern human mind. Evidence of the archaeological record indicates that this ability arose between (sic) relatively recently. . . . A musical instrument – a flute – has been found from 43,000 years ago. The first known cave paintings were made 31,000 years ago. At around the same time, people started burying their dead.
An increased variation in the tools created also dates from this period.
This is a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms and can only be seen as a dramatic development. The reasons are hard to explain and reducing them to the result of accelerated brain development from some combination of vitamin-rich fish and digestion-aiding fire fails to be completely convincing. That a bigger brain gives us an evolutionary advantage in the ability it confers on us to deal with the complexities of our social life misses part of the mystery for me.
My concern is not so much with this development’s physical causes, its suddenness or the evolutionary advantages it might be said to bestow, but with the fact that it seemed to implicate three diverse forms of human expertise and inquiry: art, religion and science/technology. The roots of all those three are here. Horrobin quoted Picasso (op. cit: page 16) as having viewed the cave paintings at Altamira, painted throughout a period between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago, and commented: ‘We have learned nothing.’
The Dangers of Dogmatic Science
We have become prone to see the realms within which art, religion and science move as quite distinct, even hostile. Is that position justified? Might it be possible that each is a path towards a better understanding of reality, towards a closer approximation of the truth? By divorcing them have we blocked off any hope of achieving a more complete perspective than the current fragmented and contradictory one?
There are increasing numbers of reputable thinkers who believe so. Rupert Sheldrake is a scientist who has risked his credibiliity and his career arguing publicly for science to accept its limitations and allow for the existence of baffling mysteries it cannot (yet?) explain.
He lists unhelpful dogmas that the church of science teaches (pages 7-8):
Here are the ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted.1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are like genetically programmed computers.2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other material structures.7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not ‘out there’, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.8. Memories are stored as material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Oatley is both a psychologist and novelist who makes what might seem extraordinary claims for fiction as ‘not just a slice of life’ (From the Preface) but as ‘a guided dream, a model that we readers and viewers construct in collaboration with the writer, which can enable us to see others and ourselves more clearly. The dream can offer us glimpses beneath the surface of the everyday world.’
Both of these writers, Baumeister and Oatley, bring the methods of science to bear upon the positions they are arguing for.
Combining our Powers
In the posts of this blog we have already seen Eric Reitan argue that it is just as reasonable to believe in God as not to believe in Him. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise so completely compelling as to force anyone to believe or not believe. We have seen Ken Wilber and Margaret Donaldson clearly demonstrate that scientism privileges the kind of evidence that supports scientism’s reductionist prejudices and discounts replicable experiences within the meditative traditions that suggest they might be unwise to do so. Baumeister and Tierney as we have recently discussed have trawled the scientific literature and found numerous examples of how religion benefits society and the individual. (I am not blind to the dark side of faith and have discussed it at some length – see my posts on Conviction in the list below.)
In the end, though, how much longer can a beleaguered humanity grope for solutions to its complex and global problems in the semi-darkness, refusing to use every possible source of light?
All too often it seems, as Sheldrake contends, the light of science is dimmed by reductionist and simplistic filters that need to be discarded. Robert Wright has strongly implied that religion in the hands of too many of us is narrowed to the pencil torch of some kind of fundamentalism. At the same time, too much of art at the so-called high end has surrendered to the fragmented perspectives of modernism and merely reflects our bewildered and chaotic perceptions of reality back to us in its broken mirror.
We can’t afford to let this continue for much longer, I would have said. We need to stop bickering and combine our powers if we are to solve our problems in time.
I plan to come back to the works of Sheldrake and Oatley in more detail at a later date but feel that what they write is of such importance and said so eloquently that I needed to highlight their work almost as soon as I had found it.
- Review: Such Stuff As Dreams – Keith Oatley
- Rupert Sheldrake: the ‘heretic’ at odds with scientific dogma
- The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry, By Rupert Sheldrake
- Skilfully Willing (2/2) (A summary of Baumeister and Tierney’s points about the value of religion)
- Conviction 1, Conviction 2 & Conviction 3
- ‘Is God a Delusion?’ by Eric Reitan
- The Self & the Soul (5/5) (for Wilber and Donaldson)
- Expanding the Moral Imagination (A review of Robert Wright’s book ‘The Evolution of God’)