The Art and Science of Discovering Truth

phasechange
Photo credit: IBM Research; Phase-change neurons. A chip with large arrays of phase-change devices that store the state of artificial neuronal populations in their atomic configuration. 

*This is a processing post, going all over the place…I do not claim to have an absolute handle on truth or how to get to it…so hang with me.

“Science is a way of thinking, more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan

Last week I was chatting with someone about our college days and what we majored in.  He knew I had a science background but was unaware that I also had a degree in Missions from the Christian university I attended, eons ago it feels like.  He asked what that major was about, and I told him it likely would not interest him because it was basically about proselytizing around the world and trying to bring people to Jesus, with a bit of humanitarian work added in for good measure. I frankly am a little embarrassed these days to admit I have this degree, mainly because while I totally think people should explore who Jesus was and the rich spirituality that can come from Christianity, the last thing I want to do is to manipulate people into thinking they’re going to hell in a handbasket if they haven’t been “saved”. That being said, the degree was a valuable resource for teaching me to become more globally aware and less ethnocentric.  If I’m honest about it, the degree probably inadvertently helped lead me away from an evangelical bent because it encouraged me to be more open-minded and look beyond myself and the ways of living I grew up with. I gained alot of anthropological insights and cultural sensitivity out of those classes and “mission trips”.

The person I was talking with used to do research in a field called atomically precise manufacturing, and I’ve since decided after hearing him give a talk on the subject, that in my next life I am going to hunker down, force myself to take those additional calculus and physics classes that I avoided in college, and pursue a career in physical chemistry. Fascinating stuff, I tell you, and some of it dovetails with the analytical chemistry research I did as an undergrad.  Is it too late to change career directions, AGAIN?

As we talked about his work on APM, and how doing good science is important to both of us, it occurred to me that maybe the rigorous pursuit by scientists, academics, and researchers to get people to pay attention to science….basically proselytizing people to science… is really no different than when people from a faith tradition go out and try to get other people to join them by means of persuasion, guilt, or shaming. I didn’t really like to come to this conclusion at first, because sometimes I think of science as a little mini-god…well-done science as an absolute that can’t really be argued with…like if people would just use their brains they would all come to the same conclusions.  Then my self-arrogance-o-meter kicked in and I recognized that my thought train was a privileged one and that maybe I should think about this topic more.

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There is good science, and there is bad science.  But there is also good religion/spirituality, and there is bad religion/spirituality.  While it can sometimes be difficult to parse out the differences, both of these require a determination to avoid laziness and quick answers.  Good science is not churned out as quick responses when questions are posed, and good spirituality requires long spans of living out hard questions and refusing to grab on immediately to the fuzzy, feel-good platitudes of cheap, easy, and superficial religion.

There are alot of things about Christianity that I grew up believing that I now look back on with incredulity.  How did I believe some of those ideas for so long, and let them intimidate me into living a life that didn’t always feel real or authentic to who I am, fundamentally? It isn’t just a matter of me not agreeing with some of my old beliefs; I look back now and feel absolutely silly for viewpoints I once held so strongly to. How could I have ever come to some of those conclusions?  But I also realize that so many of those beliefs took root because in the area of spirituality and religion, I hadn’t been taught well how to think.  I was unintentionally taught how to blindly believe, read sacred texts super-literally, and accept being shut down when I asked the hard questions. It wasn’t until I reached the academia of religion through college, where I was taught about exegesis, hermeneutics, use of biblical languages, thinking about cross-cultural contexts, etc, that I began to build a toolbox of new paradigms and ways of thinking about how life and God might work. I also had to go out into the world and experience more to gain understanding with different eyes and a different mind.  So, looking back, I couldn’t do better spirituality because I didn’t know better at the time, and I didn’t have the tools I needed to do better.

It seems to me that doing science is much the same as the way I described my growing up spiritually process. I really like Sagan’s words about science as a way of thinking.  I think alot of the world misses this, especially in this day and age of arguing about fake news and how “my evidence is better than your evidence.” Aren’t we so good at proof texting scientific studies just as we are with Bible verses?  Well, this one study says drinking red wine leads to a decrease in relative risk of heart disease, so that clearly means it’s OK to down a bottle every day.  Or, this study shows that this number of people lost weight eating  an ultra-low-carb diet, so clearly, we need to down the fat-bombs and consume bacon with every meal to achieve optimal health. Or, to be a little controversial here, The President has a “good feeling” about hydroxychloroquine and there are some preliminary studies describing its use in COVID patients, so let’s just start throwing it like gangbusters at everyone who has tested positive.

It’s my study versus your study, my scientific news source versus yours, tit for tat, back and forth.  As though finding real truth is just a matter of learning a few facts and lobbing them at people, claiming we have figured out life.

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Going back to atomically-precise manufacturing guy.  Yesterday, we talked for a bit about a piece that just came out in the New York Times, where a principal investigator for the federal government’s COVID clinical trials cautioned that employing experimental drugs too broadly and too quickly could cause more harm than help because we are treating emotion instead of doing good science. We need the well designed clinical studies and data gathered over time. My question to him, APM guy:  is it morally OK to throw Hail-Marys at people at a time like this, or should we hold to the gold standards of research and wait until we have solid clinical evidence of safety and efficacy before we act?  His opinion: sometimes you just need both.  Sometimes you need to lob Hail Marys while maintaining the rigorous slower pace of good research at the same time…because at a time like this, people need answers and people need solutions.

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Is there a place for bad science?  Is there a place for bad spirituality? Can those two things be part of the bigger picture of TRUTH?

I think sometimes about that quote attributed to Karl Marx….”religion is an opiate for the masses”, which is apparently more accurately translated: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people“.

I’ve heard people use this quote in a derogatory manner….like those of us who are drawn to religion and spirituality basically are looking for something to dope ourselves up with in order to avoid reality. I actually think that is incorrect, although I have to say I’m doing bad science with that statement because I’ve never actually done drugs or used any drugs like LSD or ayahuasca that are purported to offer spiritually enlightening experiences. But it makes me wonder…maybe bad science or bad religion have their place even if they aren’t perfect or always done well, because they encourage us to engage our imaginations, at least to an extent, and think beyond what we see right in front of us.

When I was in junior high, and then again in college, I was dreadfully depressed.  There were so many times I just wanted to end my suffering, most of which I kept to myself. I wasn’t afraid of death, but at the time, because of my conservative Christian beliefs, I was terrified of the idea of having to get to heaven and stand before Jesus and tell him that I wussed out on him and on life.  Looking back, I think my theology during those years was not so great, but bad as it was, it gave me something to hang on to when I couldn’t see any other great motivator to keep trying at life.  That’s got to be worth something, right?

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I try really hard to remember that truth, in whatever form, can be subjective and slippery. I’ve had people try to convince me that they knew certain things to be absolutely true; I’m always very suspicious and skeptical when I hear those kinds of things.  I personally believe the only thing that I know to be absolutely true is that love exists.  However, I’m also aware that that could be my own subjective reality, and I don’t really want people to believe it just because I said it and that I believe it.

There are so many things that have seemed completely true at one time or another, and then we figured out that we were sometimes dead wrong.  The world feels flat from the vantage point of the earth’s surface, but we know that it is in fact, a big round ball of rock moving in an elliptical orbit around the Sun. We also used to take time for granted and assumed that it was a constant in life.  Well, apparently not. In physicist Carlo Rovelli’s words, time is “part of a complicated geometry woven together with the geometry of space”. Or what about absolute zero…where we used to think the temperature was so low that atoms would cease to move. But scientists have been able to reach negative Kelvin scale temperatures in the lab thanks to quantum physics.

My whole point here is that truth about anything can be hard to put our finger on.  Even if like, in classical physics, things seem true on a certain scale, that truth might not always translate to a different scale…like how the rules for physics seem to change on the quantum level. We should probably all remain sobered and respectful of this in our pursuit of truth and our compulsion to tell everyone else what we believe to be true.

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Back to scientific proselytizing.  So many times we are trying to force people to take our word for it when we share scientific findings or theories.  We insist about DNA and quarks and dark matter and all manner of other things and shame people who don’t automatically believe us or our textbooks or our data sets.  But we as scientists can also get very annoyed at people who try to push religion on us, who are recounting their own personal spiritual experiences and pointing to references in sacred writings that we might not be convinced actually hold any weight.

We all seem to try to insist that others believe what we have seen and/or experienced, whether it is about science or spirituality. And we all get annoyed with each other sometimes when we are asked to accept things as true with blind faith…some of us will get annoyed when we are just told to trust that vaccines are safe because alot of scientists have said so, and alot of us will get annoyed when we are told we should just accept Jesus as a redemptive savior so we can go to heaven because alot of people believe we are otherwise damned to hell.

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OK, maybe besides love, one other thing that I believe is absolutely true is that we have to hold grace for each other, and we have to forgive each other. All of our individual pursuits to find truth are inevitably going to be on collision courses with each other. We have to recognize that for some people, pursuing truth is an art form, that needs to be felt out in subjective ways.  Others are going to believe in their bones that truth is objective and can be unearthed through good, well-designed experimentation.  And we have to be gentle with each other, and even amidst the frustrations that arise, honor that each person is on their own path and has the right the pursue truth in the way that feels authentic and correct to them. We are not entitled to get our own way by making everyone see and understand the world exactly as we do.

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A slight caveat to what I just said above…..we need to offer grace, but we need to also relentlessly pursue showing people and allowing ourselves to be shown, how to do good science and how to do good spirituality.  Maybe not in a manipulative proselytizing way, but through encouragement and with each other’s best interests in mind.

Didn’t Maya Angelou say, “When you know better, do better”?  In my mind, science is a way of thinking, and spirituality is a way of being.  Both can be improved upon, albeit in different ways. Both require us to lay aside laziness and acceptance of the status quo without ever attempting to engage or ask good questions.

This is the important part of truth-seeking that gives us the space and maybe permission to be able to offer our ideas to others.  Personally, I have no desire to take advice or criticism from people who have refused to wrestle with life, who have insisted on always playing it safe, who have avoided suffering and pain at every turn, who refuse to consider that they might be wrong. But the people who have survived really hard things and allowed their hearts to remain soft, open, and engaged with life….well, they can pontificate to me freely and I will be so much more likely to listen, even if I ultimately don’t come to the same conclusions as them. The people who refuse to gloss over the difficult questions, who work relentlessly to unearth the shadow parts of themselves, who strive to think critically, and yet are OK with not knowing all the answers to life…these are the people I want to learn from, because somehow I believe they might have the greatest grasp on absolute Truth, whatever that is.

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And a final thought:  fear can never be the ground of being from which we seek truth.  Maybe it is a necessary short term catalyst to get us moving, but it can never be the long-term motivation. I’m personally convinced, although I won’t insist on my correctness, that fear can never lead us all the way to Truth, either in science or in spirituality.  This is because it always has us looking over our shoulders, staying guarded, reluctant to take this one risk or chance that might actually be the one step that is ultimately needed.

Nope, the art and science in the pursuit of truth are marked by bravery and courage that insist on moving forward even when the fear threatens to overwhelm us. Fear keeps us small, fear keeps us afraid of hell, fear keeps us from loving others well…fear keeps us from doing anything, everything to find what is real, genuine, authentic, and lasting.

This is why I don’t like proselytizing of any kind, whether it be of the scientific or religious variety. Invitations, free from manipulation and fear, are better.  I think this is always true.

 

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