The Importance Of Acknowledging Our Own Limitations & Gaps In Knowledge (Religion & Science)

The Bene Gesserit, a secretive sisterhood in the ground-breaking Dune sci-fi series, were famous for doubting everything. Asked what color a house was, the well-trained Bene Gesserit would answer that section of the house she could currently see was white, but she couldn’t tell from her vantage point the color of the rest of the house. This piece of intellectual flair made a big impression on my young mind when I first read Dune decades ago.

The point, of course, was that if we were truly careful about making conclusions about the physical world or the contents of our consciousness, we would always qualify our language like the Bene Gesserit. What color is that car? Well, the side that I can see is dark blue.

In practice we can’t always be quite as obsessively precise as the Bene Gesserit, but it’s a nice ideal to work toward. For scientists or philosophers in particular, it is certainly an appropriate tool to add to one’s toolbox.  As in my previous columns outlining a new “deep science,” we should always be very careful about how we state conclusions about the nature of reality and our place in it.

tambookThis is a key distinction between scientific approaches to knowledge and religious approaches to knowledge. Science highlights the role of doubt and uncertainty on the path towards greater certainty, while religions generally highlight the need for faith and certainty in accepting the view of the world described in the particular holy book at issue.

The Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), in particular, stress faith and denigrate doubt. To be righteous, certain types of actions are also urged, but generally having faith in the validity and correctness of the teachings is the foremost concern. Indeed, “believers” is a general term used for those with a religious orientation. A few examples are worth mentioning:

In the Christian tradition, James 1:6 states: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”

The Koran states at the very beginning that “there is no doubt” in this book.

Even though some forms of Buddhism stress an empirical approach to the teachings of Buddha by emphasizing the need to try out various teachings for yourself before acceptance, some Buddhist scriptures nevertheless mirror to some degree the Abrahamic approach to faith and doubt. For example, the lengthy Buddhist tract that forms the philosophical origins of today’s Zen, the Avatamsaka Sutra, states that those who follow the path of the Buddha “have ended doubt.” (P. 1157, Shambhala edition) Even seeing the Buddha will sever “all doubts of sentient beings.” (P. 1159)

This demonstrates an essential difference between science and religion: religions are almost always about sharing an accepted set of truths that have been revealed to one or more people who founded and shaped the religion at issue. There is almost never an invitation to help shape or further refine those doctrines. Science is quite different, offering an explicit invitation to all scientists to discover new truths and to overturn old truths when they become inadequate to the facts. Science is an explicit crowdsourcing of knowledge, where anyone with some training and good ideas can make a difference.

Now, in practice both religion and science can be quite different than what I’ve outlined here. Both can be highly dogmatic. Science isn’t as rational or empirical as it should be and religion isn’t always as resistant to change as I’ve suggested. But there is indeed a significant difference in approach, and it seems to me that deep science must emphasize at all times the explicit invitation to develop new knowledge, new insights, and new tools, all of which are part and parcel of good science in general.

Can Deep Science Provide Spiritual Meaning?

Some are attracted to science because of its hard-nosed acceptance of reality as it is, without any layering of human values on top of it. Under this approach, we accept the hard truths about our place in the universe and the meaning of our lives (or lack thereof) as human beings. Steven Weinberg’s (an American physicist) famous quote sums it up well: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

It is not the case, however, that being truly scientific means we must abandon a valid and empirical case for finding meaning beyond the mechanistic collection of facts about the universe. To the contrary, there is plenty of room in modern physics, and science more broadly, for a truly optimistic but also accurate notion of humanity’s place in the cosmos. This is a vision quite different than Weinberg’s depressing assertion would suggest. Freeman Dyson, another American physicist, stated it well in his inspiring book, Infinite In All Directions (pp. 117-118): “Twentieth-century science, when it looks to the future, provides a solid foundation for a philosophy of hope. A rational soul, knowing what we know now about the universe, has no reason to dismiss as fantasy the optimistic visions of [past thinkers].”

There are many other high-powered thinkers who have sketched a vision of an infinitely open and creative future, including Alfred North Whitehead, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ilya Prigogine, Lee Smolin, and others. These thinkers present an antidote to the sterile and static view of the universe that unfortunately still prevails in physics and philosophical circles. The thinkers just mentioned all champion a dynamic and evolving universe rather than the static block universe concept that has taken hold over the last century. And a dynamic and evolving universe is a playground for you and I, and all beings, to shape as we will.

Back To The Real World

There are real consequences to these issues concerning faith and doubt. As a recent and ongoing example, the strongly religious view of the world that inspires terrorist acts like those committed by ISIS in Iraq and now Libya, is one that rests on the idea of certainty and revealed truth. Similarly, US right-wing discussion about how to best deal with such threats (usually advocating massive violence) mirrors the same Manichaean certainties about the nature of evil and the need to wipe it off the face of the Earth as forcibly as possible.

By emphasizing doubt and a scientifically-informed spirituality we can eventually rise above this Manichaean mindset and search for solutions that may actually end the cycle of violence rather than indefinitely prolonging it by “fighting fire with fire.”

The Bene Gesserit of the Dune series have a “litany against fear” designed to help in times of stress. The litany is a good reminder that a large motivation for religion is fear. By rising above fear as best we can I hope we can also move toward a world that is a bit more rational and a lot more loving and accepting of differences. Love in and of itself won’t, of course, melt away ISIS or other vicious actors, but it will definitely help.

I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

Check out my book Eco. Ego. Eros.

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6 comments
  1. I agree that science rightly faces doubt. While, I do not consider myself religious, I fear you over generalise that faith denies doubt. Of course I am aware of the texts you rightly quote. From Job arguing about Gods fairness, and Jonah fleeing his task and then complaining I have always felt spirituality is a process of negotiating life’s harsh realities with idealism. If I may misuse Jung, the purpose of all myths is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction”. (Science may argue it has been incapable of the task).
    Perhaps the problem with religious believers is that many choose select verses (such as the James quote you used) without looking at the many other contradictory, inconvenient stories. Muslim scholar Reza Aslan once pointed out that the Quran and the Bible and other great religious texts express the whole host of the human condition warts and all. While many (most?) believers don’t want to face their doubts, the mystery schools (Kabbalah, Christian mystics, Sufism, Bhakti Hinduism) have tried to make sense of the scriptural contradictions and “nasty stories”. Perhaps they do so from a faith perspective – I hope over tie they will better bridge science and the meaning behind their texts. My point is the deeper sides of religions do face these questions.
    Perhaps to face our doubts we could learn from the Bhagavad Gita, where a hero Ajuna is facing the doubts about his duty! It concludes asking for “a religion of no religion” but of devoted service.
    Since “God” (whatever that means) could only be experienced though our senses anyway, perhaps facing our doubt honestly and working through them is a spiritual (religious?) process. True faith, to my mind embraces doubt , perhaps seeks to conquer it, but denying it is cowardice, the opposite of faith. Then if we are “spiritual enough” to become some sought of saint we may conquer our doubts. When ever I study the lives of people I consider spiritual heroes it seems to me they tackled doubt and challenged religious authority. Could you imagine Gandhi a TV evangelist. To this day in India (I live there four years) Gandhi’s challengers to faith cause mixed reaction.

  2. Indeed, we have gaps in our knowledge both in religion and science but as we continue to evolve the gaps will get narrower and a better understanding will emerge. What we know so far in both subjects is not absolute, even,if we think they are,cause as time progress we develope a much sharper critical thinking which challenges the established “facts or truths” and we then go back to the drawing board to rewrite or review our stance. Research acknowledges this basic premise and this is the way forward to a better world for all humanity.

  3. With the fast developing awareness and the beginnings of an understanding of quantum theory, the only thing that we can be sure about is that current scientific development, although practically helpful in the world as we currently “see” it is so full of gaps that the only realistic conclusion we can come to, is that we really don’t know anything at all. Maybe we are all on a path of discovery to our true destination, which could very well be the evolution to a state of pure energy.

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