Rational Religion

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DAMN! Isnít Anything True?


TRUTH, in human terms, is elusive and always arguable.


Viewed through the filter of cultural bias, everything we "know" is somewhere open to debate.†


There is almost certainly a body of objective truth; universal facts which obey the laws of physics instead of the prejudices of mankind.† The ferreting out and revealing these kernels of true wisdom has always been a tough row to hoe, leading to every form of social abuse from ostracism to notably protracted and messy execution.


Yet we seem to have always sought these "real" truths; at least some among us.


Consciousness is fragile.† It can be interrupted by a blow on the head; terminated by a hard enough blow.† We surrender it more or less willingly to sleep for a quarter to a third of every day.†


But when we are awake our consciousness is so preeminently at the center of our concept of self that we really cannot conceive of not having it.† This is probably why nearly all cultures have some belief in a "life after death."† After all, we awake from sleep and dreams; why not awake from the ultimate sleep to something wonderful?


But with our own, personal consciousness intact; or what's the point?


Witness the (perhaps too-) oft-told parable of the Chinese philosopher, who, awaking from a dream that he was a butterfly, paused to wonder whether he were indeed a Chinese philosopher who had dreamed he was a butterfly -- or a butterfly who was now dreaming that he was a Chinese philosopher.†


Most sensible "Western" folks dismiss this tale as typical Oriental mysticism, designed to confuse the mind in piddling paradox.


But most folks, sensible and otherwise, believe in and know to be true a whole lot of other stuff, as least as fanciful as the philosopher's musing about whether he might actually be a sentient insect, (engaged in a bout of lepidopteran slumber); and a good deal easier to refute, with the application of a good high school education in physics and biology.†


Except of course to the various believers, who know their truths so profoundly that no amount of objective proof can shake their faith.


You see, unlike the Chinese sage, most people are pretty sure whether they are awake or asleep; at least when they are awake.


And they have to know the important things in their lives are true, because without this certainty they could not deal with the amorphous mess of other people's reality which surrounds and bedevils them; teachers who give homework assignments as though theirs were the only class on your schedule; bosses who blame you for their mistakes and take credit for your successes; spouses who twist your intentions back upon themselves like Gordian knots; a whole society which ignores you until you happen to do something spectacularly wrong; everyday disasters like the death of loved ones or the loss of income.


But there have always been those among us, like the perhaps-be-butterfly-philosopher, who have sought the larger truths; those closer to physical reality.


Most of us think we know what is physically real.† We know that walking off a cliff or a tall building will subject us to the disastrous pull of gravity.† We realize that if we do not eat or (especially) drink for an extended period of time we will inevitably weaken and eventually die.† Our lungs are not equipped to separate the plentiful dissolved oxygen from water, so submerged we drown.†


These awarenesses are so manifestly part of our everyday equipment for survival that we can easily fool ourselves into thinking that all of our concepts are as valid.†


Manifestly, they are not.† Most of what we think we know is actually a hodgepodge of impressions, prejudices and self-interested evaluations, with a few checkable facts mixed in to further confuse us.


And this self-deception plagues not only the everyday citizen who doesn't want to bother to think about anything which makes his head hurt, but also the exalted realms of science and philosophy.


Geography, the way we learned it in grade school (or used to; I understand it is now out of pedagogical fashion) was a pretty four-square subject without much room for rumination.† The continents were here, and there, and the countries in them were all of different colors so we could easily identify their borders.


Even more reassuring, one could pinpoint any spot on the globe, or on a map, with an immutable set of numbers; this many degrees, minutes and seconds of Latitude, North or South; so many of the same of West or East Longitude.


What your teacher never made clear to you in the Seventh Grade was that only one of these sets of measurements is based in physical reality.


Latitude, or distance north and south of the Equator is a pretty solid fact; at least as long as the Earth continues to rotate on the same polar axis as it has in the historical past.† What we CALL this distance, in degrees or minutes, is nothing more than a handy fiction (ask a German or a Chinese geographer what THEY call it) but whatever it is named it does refer to the Earth's axis poles and an equally handy imaginary line exactly halfway between them:† Imaginary, but always demonstrably in the same place, irrespective of politics or national pride.†


Longitude, on the other hand is wholly imaginary and dependent entirely upon the fact that Great Britain at one time ruled the seas.††


You see, all the major and some of the minor nations of Europe went voyaging madly in the wake of Columbus and Magellan and they needed some agreed-upon standard of Longitude in order to keep from getting hopelessly lost on the high seas.† Latitude, as I have indicated, was easy.† If such and such a star was steadily so far above the southern horizon, on your left, as you sailed due west, you knew you were on course.†† But how far were you from home port or destination?† You could shoot the sun and other stars with your sextant at bankable times of day, such as sunrise and noon, and have some idea of your position, but relative to what?


Well, because they had the best and most numerous ships when the agreement was reached (and over the furious objections of the French who refused to participate in the agreement at the time) the English were able to establish the Zero degree of Longitude as running between the north and south poles and smack through the small city of Greenwich, then some miles outside of London.


(The International Date Line, on the other side of the globe, putatively 180 degrees away, is a good deal more amorphous and wandering.† Also due to political considerations, it zigzags like a fractured eggshell, skirting Eastern Siberia and the islands of Alaska† - to put them both in the same day as the rest of their parent continents - and darts back and forth among the South Pacific islands according to who owns them or "protects" them; or did so at the time of last determination.†


So gee whiz!† If half of geography is imaginary, what on earth can we really count on?


Well, not really much; on Earth, at least.


But from several millennia back certain inquisitive souls were making note of the passage of seasons and the positions of various heavenly bodies at certain times of the year.† It became obvious that some of these relative positions recurred predictably from year to year, decade after decade.


This seemed important enough to keep detailed records of; and in many cases to incorporate it into the prevailing religion as one of those immutable truths that the various faiths are so jealous about claiming as their own.


Although it remains unproven, Stonehenge and most of the myriad of other rock and wood "henges" of England and Northern Europe seem to have been various kinds of celestial observatories, with scientific measurements combining with metaphysical rituals.† Some of the constructions of ancient Native Americans of the Southwestern United States make sense only as the same sort of calendric season-marker.


But, alas, in most of these societies, the science was likely so dominated by the mythology that any factual observation which did not fit with the prevailing theology was thrown out of the equation as an unexplained error, or simply ignored.


The most annoying class of celestial objects which never seemed to fit the rest of the pattern were a number of wandering points of light which kept showing up in places eventually sort of predictable but forever out of synch with the rest of the heavens.† The ancient observers simply called them "wanderers" (planetes, in Greek) and variously accepted them as slightly freaky stars which either didn't matter much in the observable overwhelming scheme of things, or as powerful omens of men's fates (Astrology).


Still, it is no accident that the machinations of the heavens proved to be the earliest and most profound point of contention between the truly scientific astronomers of the Middle Ages in Europe, and the Roman Catholic Church which dominated everyday thought.† Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, Galileo; all saw patterns in celestial movements which simply did not jibe with popular -and official - superstition.


Because people who discover new truths often consider their discoveries important enough to publicize, they inevitably come at cross-purposes with established authority.†† Copernicus, a canon, himself, of the Church, simply knew better than to publish his heliocentric theory of the universe in his lifetime.† Instead, he allowed it to be circulated in manuscript form among other astronomers of his day and it had tremendous intellectual impact.† Bruno, a brilliant polymath whose HeliocentrIsm was only one of his many heresies, was burned at the stake.† Galileo, as every schoolchild knows, was forced to recant his own very modern and elaborate cosmology under threat of the same sort of treatment.††


But though the penalties were this extreme, many "natural philosophers" insisted on pursuing the elusive flame of "objective truth."


The struggle continues today; the popular movie stereotype of a scientist as either a bumbling genius who makes great discoveries by sheer happenstance, or as a demented monomaniac who insists on inventing one or another variety of fanciful doomsday machine, betrays all too clearly what a large percentage of the populace thinks of science; as a combination of magic and accident. †And of scientists; as brainy misfits who know more than they should about dangerous subjects.†


Confronted with this forbidding social climate, many would-be seekers have settled too soon for a sort of "virtual reality" (which has no kinship with the modern concepts of cyberspace).†† But the best, and most persistent, minds have continued to invent and practice the scientific method which now serves us as the most promising link between our ephemeral individual consciousnesses and the actualities of the universe which is - however temporarily - our home.†


We may all be butterflies, but at least we now begin to understand what that means.†