Yesterday I chatted with a guy who is deeply Christian, yet also moderately scientific. For at least twenty years he's come over when we needed some repair work done on our security system.
Standing around, watching him do his circuit testing thing, we eventually get around to our usual philosophical conversation dance. I know he's a true believing Christian; he knows I'm decidedly something else.
The Taoist art hanging around the house and bookshelves filled with titles like "The End of Faith" and "God is Not Good" probably is a giveaway. I'm also not shy about expressing my skepticism to his certainty.
That's what I notice the most when I talk with Tom (not his real name). His certainty. About certain things, at least.
When he's diagnosing a problem with our security system, he's open to all possibilities. He eliminates them one by one until he's found the reason for our maintenance call.
But when our conversation turns in a metaphysical direction, Tom is darn sure of where he stands. Whereas I'm not. So we don't usually argue. Instead, he'll express his firm opinion and I'll respond, "Well, that's interesting. But I don't know how we'd ever know it for sure."
A topic yesterday was how God, or by inference any unseen non-physical being, would affect goings-on here on Earth. Tom opined that all it would take would be the subtlest tilting of a material or mental action in one direction or another.
Like when you can't decide whether to accept a job offer. You ponder the pros and cons, finding them almost equally balanced, then end up saying "Yes" or "No" on an intuitive feeling of This is the right thing to do.
Tom thought this is the way God intervenes in human affairs, with imperceptible nudges. I said, "OK, that's a possibility. Chaos theory tells us that small actions can have big effects. But it doesn't seem like there'd be any way to prove that God was responsible, since in this case the action is undetectable."
From there we went on to other subjects. Tom considered that he knew something about God. I didn't. I couldn't prove Tom was wrong. I didn't feel like I had to. I also couldn't prove that fairies don't exist. Or unicorns.
And I also don't feel like trying to change anyone's religious mind. Especially if they're not open to the possibility of changing.
When the topic of global warming came up, however, I was seriously tempted to do some arguing. Fundamentalism is only tolerable to me when it doesn't affect anyone else. In this case, it does. Like, every living thing on the planet.
Tom is as sure that humans aren't causing global warming as he is sure about how God acts in the world. The difference between the sureties is that his climate change convictions are demonstrably wrong, given the current scientific consensus, whereas his religious convictions simply can't be demonstrated to be right.
I needed to get to my Tai Chi class, so I didn't have time to tell Tom that (1) It isn't true that all the other planets are warming just like Earth, and (2) It also isn't true that increased output from the Sun is sufficient to explain recent global warming.
Those were just a few of the certainties that my conversational companion should have been a lot more uncertain about.
However, fundamentalism in one sphere usually carries over into others. It's rare to find a religious fundamentalist who is open to accepting scientific truths. That's because science demands a basic (dare I say "fundamental"?) attitude of uncertainty.
And that's certainly unacceptable to a fundamentalist.
In the August 4 issue of New Scientist there's an article, "Can we learn to love uncertainty?," by David Malone. Some excerpts:
You might think that no one could argue with the value of certainty. It has the air of one of those indisputably good things, like world peace or motherhood. But I would argue that the pursuit of certainty has become a dangerous addiction. Like alcohol, it makes us feel safe, but it is also making us stupid and belligerent.
Few notions have become as deeply embedded in our culture as the belief that there is a perfect certainty to be had – and the desire to have it. It has survived virtually intact the transition from religion to rationalism as the touchstone of our society. Even as science squeezed out belief in God and scriptural certainties, a perfect law-governed creation remained; it was just under new management. Science has become, in the minds of many, the new guarantor that there is certainty and that we can attain it.
Well, I don't know what Malone means by "many." In the United States it's definitely nowhere near a majority. Many more Americans are convinced that religion offers certitudes than that science does.
Still, Malone correctly points out that if people are looking for certainty in science, they'll be disappointed.
We need to reach an accommodation with uncertainty. Not only is the universe uncertain, but so too is human knowledge. Science as a process should never have fostered any illusions about this: it was always about provisional truths, and knew it. Perhaps it's time for us to finally accept that we shouldn't believe in science because we think it's certain, but precisely because it's not.
Certainty is totalitarian. It forecloses further thinking. Not one of the theories devised by Newton, Darwin, Einstein or Planck is certain and perfect. Powerful and beautiful they undoubtedly are, but they are still partial and incomplete approximations of truth.
…The profound discoveries of modern mathematics and science show that life and thinking flourish only in the luminal and fertile land that lies between too much certainty and too much doubt. The art of scientific inquiry is to tack back and forth between the two.
The art of philosophical and spiritual inquiry also.
But if I'm going to make a navigational error, let it be in the open seas direction of doubt, because certainty is a reef that stops the good ship Inquiry in its tracks.