Rational Religion

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A Bit More on the Great Dichotomy


"In the end, everything is physics;"  because the physical world as we understand it is composed of subatomic interactions.  If we "understand it" imperfectly, it is because we do not yet have the data and techniques to parse those interactions to the ultimate degree .


"In the end, everything is metaphysics;" because we have to understand it all with a human mind.


It is the profoundest paradox of a Rational Religion that the human mind cannot exist without metaphysics.


There is simply not time enough nor room in the brain for any of us to take most of the world on anything but faith.  To demand empirical or experimental proof for every decision or conclusion in life would be paralysis.


So we "supply" decisions and leap to conclusions based upon whatever looks logical to us at the moment; based perhaps simply on the way we feel, however temporarily.


And not just for the "small stuff" that "doesn't matter," like which clothes to put on for the day or whether to eat breakfast or whether just to skip class and sleep in. 


Decisions which are liable to affect our very health and the length of our life we make every day without subjecting them to much scrutiny or reflection at all.  Shall we make an effort to give up smoking?  Shall we enter this motorcycle race?  Should we eat another fat-and-sugar-laden dessert?  Should we drive in a tule fog to get to work?   ... To go to the 7-11 for cigarettes?


Most of what we do hangs out there in space with no foundation; no connection to reality; no objective justification, except to our own unique mental picture of the Universe and our position in it...AT THE TIME.


But, of what use is "objective reality;" assuming we can even agree on what that is?


Scientists and historians of science are engaged in an ongoing debate about the definition of "objectivity."   Some -- most usually those in the "soft" sciences themselves -- have decided that it is just another subjective construct of the human central nervous system.  These people tend to feel that the "hard" sciences' insistence on rigorous empirical experimentation with controls and peer-review verification is little more than a set of shibboleths with which physicists, chemists and biologists maintain their power and influence over the rest of us. 


I feel this might be a "tit for tat" reaction to the hard scientists' often-poorly-concealed disdain for people who presume to call such fuzzy wetware-based disciplines as psychology, sociology, history and economics "sciences" in the first place. 


Hard scientists can be pretty imperious, feeling as they do that they have the only techniques which fit all the criteria of Scientific Method.


What they mean by "objectivity" is the procedure of getting as close to the understanding of physical reality as is humanly possible.


Some of them are even suspicious of their intellectual brothers and sisters, the observational scientists (astronomers; archaeologists, anthropologists and paleontologists), because those disciplines lend themselves poorly to the techniques of experimentation and control.


Was there a "Big Bang?" Or is the accumulating observational evidence of it just an artifact - or a set of unrelated artifacts - of an entirely different Universal starting point, for which we have made up a fitting theory?  


Are the astronomers currently involved in the search for other stars with planets really seeing evidence of planets (They aren't seeing planets; [in 2004] not yet; just stellar orbit perturbations which seem to indicate planets) or are they simply, humanly, interpreting the data to fit their theories?


How many of the few pounds of ancient primate bones in museums and under paleontological study are anywhere near being those of our actual ancestors?  Or even representational of them?  And how can those bone hunters presume to construct an entire skeleton...to say nothing of an accurate model of a fleshed-out proto-human (or dinosaur) -- from a handful of bone scraps too skimpy to interest a juvenile hyena?


This is not to say the observational scientists are not objectively very close to the "truth" in these diverse matters, but they are on far shakier ground than the physicist or chemist who can repeat the same experimental procedure ad infinitum with always the same results.


Nevertheless, the observational scientists aspire strongly to be associated with the "hard" science group, and are themselves often highly critical of the "soft" camp.  The soft scientists, since they deal primarily with the slithery artifacts of the human experience, know only too well how tricky it is to stake out "essential truth" in anything having to do with the human mind.   The amorphous nature of their own disciplines perhaps clouds their assessment of others; making them somewhat cynical about the prospects of finding "objective reality" in anything. 


Soft scientists also fault their harder brothers for narrowness of viewpoint and lack of imagination and creativity.    The narrowness of viewpoint is unavoidable, in the processes of experimentation and observation.  One must focus single-mindedly on the task at hand; simultaneously trying to eliminate all the human prejudices which might corrupt the results. 


But the lack of creativity and imagination is an unfair -- and inaccurate  -- criticism.  Some of the wildest leaps of imagination in history are the work of hard scientists.  And those that have turned out to be "correct" we can call "intuition."


An experimental scientist must be a rare creature, indeed; imaginative enough to deal with things not before thought of, and disciplined enough to put up with the drudgery -- sometimes lifelong drudgery -- of "proving" them..  (And resilient enough to survive the failure of the effort.  Most efforts fail.)


Theoretical scientists (be they allied with "soft," "hard," or observational disciplines) are perhaps rarer, still.  They must make great leaps into the uncharted territory of the Universe in hopes of establishing a beachhead to which their "hands-on" brethren can then build a causeway; thereby making it a new territory of "established knowledge."    They must keep one mental "foot" firmly planted on current knowledge while thrusting the other boldly into the Great Unknown. 


Obviously a lot of walking on air is involved. 


Before the human animal can accomplish anything, some one of us must conceive of it as possible; or perhaps, just conceive of it. 


And before we can conceive of anything, we must have as firm a starting point as possible, from which to fling our imagination into the void. 


That our starting point is firm, we must have faith in the accuracy of our observations and the efficacy of our techniques.


No wonder there is such controversy over the objective nature of "objectivity."