Last night my wife and I entered a den of secular, scientific skeptics. Not surprisingly, we enjoyed our first CFI Salem Humanists meeting. There was some sort of merging between the local Center for Inquiry and Humanist groups, but CFI seems to be the main banner under which they meet now.
Laurel and I had read about the meeting, an honoring of Carl Sagan, in our local newspaper. We figured we'd meet some like-minded people. We figured right.
There were quite a few other newbies in an upstairs room at the IKE Box coffeehouse. So it took a while for the dozen or so people to settle into a communicative vibe. At first I wasn't sure whether the meeting was going to be more of a presentation or more of a discussion.
It turned out to be a fairly free-floating discussion about a wide variety of interesting topics. Most of the themes were right up my churchless alley, so I had more trouble keeping my mouth shut than thinking of something to say.
Here's a sampling of conversation subjects which have stuck in my next-day mind.
Personal experience vs. demonstrable truth. The most religious'y man at the meeting spoke about his experience of "Christian kundalini." He had some sort of energetic awakening which turned him off from dogmatic religion, yet turned him on to a Christ-consciousness, universal mind, matter is an illusion, fifth dimension, sort of thing.
I told him that I respected his personal experiences, but couldn't accept his view of the cosmos without there being some demonstrable evidence for it. Several of us suggested that those experiences could be traced to goings-on in his brain, rather than features of the objective world. I could tell that he didn't believe that.
Openness to possibility without gullibility. The above-mentioned guy was the attendee at one end of the metaphysical spectrum. Some hard-nosed scientific types were at the other end. I felt that I was pretty much in the middle. Several times I argued along the lines of "anything is possible, but not everything is true."
For example, no one knows what consciousness and subjectivity is all about. Through meditation, psychedelic drugs, or whatever, people might be able to experience a deeper understanding of reality than standard science is able to provide. The operative word is "might." We need to be open to new visions of reality, yet not so open we blindly accept unproven assertions, religious or otherwise.
Subjectivity and objectivity. Along this line, I noted that everything science knows about the universe, along with everything any individual knows, comes about through experiences of the human brain. The brain is the lens through which we see reality. If (or when?) computers become vastly more intelligent than us, would their understanding of the universe be more or less truthful than ours?
Or what about a highly advanced alien intelligence? If such an alien visited Earth and could comprehend our science and philosophy, likely our vaunted conclusions about what the cosmos is all about would be met with a "What the hell are you talking about? That's crazy" sort of response. There isn't any genuinely objective truth. The subjectivity of the human brain, and likely every sort of consciousness, prevents that.
Science is the best way of knowing we have. A number of people appropriately argued that while science makes mistakes and is an imperfect way of knowing reality, it is self-correcting, eventually homing in on what is true and what is false. Magic and optical illusions were discussed at the beginning of the meeting.There are explanations for these seemingly fantastical experiences. We can marvel at a magic trick or illusion without being taken in by them.
The human mind is easily deceived, but through science and reason we can come to understand how we're failing to understand reality rightly. This takes courage.
I cited the wonderful scene in the movie, "Cosmos," based on Carl Sagan's book, where Jodie Foster says "It's a go!" (or words to that effect) as a machine made from an alien transmission fires up in a shakingly violent manner. Foster's scientist character is willing to risk death in order to pursue a deeper understanding of truth.
We don't really know who "we" are. At one point I said some things that made perfect sense to me (of course), yet likely mystified other meeting attendees. Scientists, I asserted, are as deluded as the rest of us about two things: the apparent fact that "we" are not something separate from the physical brain, and the apparent fact that "we" do not have free will.
Intellectually, scientists and others may accept reductionism and determinism. However, our experience of reality causes us to feel differently, in much the same way as we can know that the Earth orbits the Sun, yet still say "the sun is setting" because that's how it seems to us.
So I theorized that this opens up the possibility of an evolved consciousness, as Zen/Buddhism asserts, where our ego-centered sense of specialness and separation from the world dissolves; we relax into an acceptance of simply being something the universe has formed. And will un-form when we die.
The pale blue dot. A young guy at the meeting had been reading another book of Carl Sagan's, "Pale Blue Dot." He made quite a few cogent observations which, unfortunately, I don't remember well enough to share. So I'll end with some quotes from the book that I used in a 2006 blog post: "Wisdom from Carl Sagan: a pale blue dot."
[Factoid: at the meeting someone said that Carl Sagan was a regular marijuana user. Cool! I didn't know that. It's true.]
We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives.
The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity -- in all this vastness -- there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.
It's been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
In regard to "Science is the best way of knowing we have."
It really isn't any way of knowing at all as evidenced by the rapid changes in the understanding of physics we have seen in the 20th and 21st centuries.
It seems each hypothesis is replaced by numerous new hypotheses caused by the scientific method itself. The more and deeper you look, the more you see and thus produce ever more possibilites. Instead of finding one immutable truth you increase the multitude of possible immutable truths to choose from.
So, by trying to move toward unchanging truth, scientists actually move away from it. The more you struggle in the thorns the more of them you get hung up on.
The application of the scientific method actually causes truth to perpetually change. Whether it is through the eye of science or a beholder, the eye cannot see itelf. So, in the struggle to see itself it creates perpetual illusion.
Posted by: tucson | November 18, 2012 at 07:17 PM
tucson, almost always science expands upon scientific truth rather than overturning it.
Quantum physics is a good example. It didn't overturn Newtonian physics; it expanded it. Newton's laws of motion in a deterministic universe still hold true. But quantum laws apply in certain circumstances, such as the world of the very small.
Also, science tends to get truer and truer. Rarely, if ever, in the history of modern science has there been a lengthy period where scientific knowledge in some field got less true, rather than more true.
Nate Silver talks about this stuff in his book. I've only read a few chapters, but get the gist of his message. Science, like betting, basically is about making predictions. Nothing is 100% certain.
However, if you want to make good predictions, you're much better off using a fact-based scientific approach, than an intuition-based religious approach. And that's a fact.
Posted by: Brian Hines | November 18, 2012 at 09:47 PM
I recall when I moved to Salem in 2006 learning that a Humanist group met monthly at the library. I wonder if this group is a remnant or new. At any rate, this news is encouraging and thanks for blogging about it (not that you need encouragement). Perhaps you could share any plans for future meetings (I'll check out the meet-up link) and whether you plan to attend.
Posted by: Lango6 | November 19, 2012 at 01:32 AM
If you want to make good decisions about making a car run properly the scientific approach may be the way to go, but when it comes to the origins of the universe, life and consciousness the scientific method fails.
Science appears to "advance" in the direction of the discovery of ultimate truth but all we have are an expanding body of hypotheses. Via multiplication, reduction, division and multiplication again we have a morass of indeterminate, relative truths.
What if science in contemplating the universe with its acquired body of explanations and "facts" suddenly finds a gap or fissure of pure nothing. And then in attempting to explain that gap science has to admit that all its "facts", which had appeared to be built upon a solid foundation of knowledge, might possibly be no more than a figment of its own imagination.
Posted by: tucson | November 19, 2012 at 07:48 AM
tucson, your mention of a gap made me think of a book I'm reading where the author speaks of the "between-ness" which is central to right brain perception (in contrast to left brain perception, the main focus of science).
He says, correctly in my opinion, that there is a "between" well, between, the objective world and our subjective understanding of it. It's that relation where meaning occurs. I agree that science doesn't handle that between very well, a point I made at the meeting described in this post.
There's really nothing objective about human knowledge. Our brains encounter the universe. In that encounter between the two, reality is perceived. Scientists often seem to assume that their view of reality is the only possible one, which isn't true. That gap, that between, has lots of room for many viewpoints.
Posted by: Brian Hines | November 19, 2012 at 10:47 AM
Is the between gap, or space, the half second between sensory(nonconceptual) cognition and conceptual mental cognition?
Posted by: Roger | November 19, 2012 at 11:20 AM
Roger, no, Iain McGilchrist is talking about something else in his book about the brain hemispheres, "The Master and the Emissary." Here's an excerpt about betweenness from p. 94-95:
I want to suggest a different way of looking at the role played by the brain in forming our experience of the world. This involves concerning oneself with the nature of knowledge itself.
We use the word "know" in at least two importantly different senses. In one sense knowledge is essentially an encounter with something or someone, therefore with something 'other' (a truth embodied in the phrase 'carnal knowledge').
We say we know someone in the sense that we have experience of him or her, so that we have a 'feel' for who he or she is, as an individual distinct from others. This kind of knowledge permits a sense of the uniqueness of the other. It is also uniquely 'my' knowledge.
...It's also 'my' knowledge not just in the sense that I can't pass it on to you, but in the sense that it's got something of me in it. What I know about her comes from the fact that it was I who encountered her.
...It's not easily captured in words; the whole is not captured by trying to list the parts ('quick tempered', 'lively', etc.); it has at least something to do with the embodied person (the photograph); it resists general terms; it has to be experienced; and the knowledge depends on betweenness (an encounter). These are all, in fact, aspects of the world 'according to' the right hemisphere.
This kind of knowledge derives from a coming together of one being or thing as a whole with another. But there is another kind of knowledge, a knowledge that comes from putting things together from bits. It is the knowledge of what we call facts.
...It is the only kind of knowledge permitted by science (though some of the very best scientists use subterfuge to get away with the other kind). It concerns knowledge in the public domain -- the local train timetable, the date of the Battle of Trafalgar, and so on. Its virtue is its certainty -- it's fixed.
It doesn't change from person to person or from moment to moment. Context is therefore irrelevant. But it doesn't give a good idea of the whole, just of a partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole.
Posted by: Brian Hines | November 19, 2012 at 01:43 PM