Friday, October 24, 2008

Mortal soul 4 -- The heavens proclaim

Four centuries ago, Francis Bacon said that what a person would like to be true, he preferentially believes. Is there a way to truth that escapes the constraints of personal preference? Can we know the world as it is and not as we wish it to be? Perhaps not. Certainly there is no such thing as Truth with a capital T, final and absolute. But Bacon was instrumental in inventing a way to reliable truth with a lower case t -- tentative, partial, evolving truth. It is called the scientific way of knowing, and it follows simple rules:

1. Rely on reproducible quantitative observations that can be shared by believer and skeptic alike.

2. Do not assume more when less will do.

3. Do not invoke the supernatural when a natural explanation will suffice.

4. Be willing to say "I don't know."

5. And, especially, be ready to admit "I was wrong."

I can't offer an ironclad proof that the scientific way of knowing is more reliable than tradition, prophets, or holy books. I can only refer you the modern world -- technology, medicine, voyages to other worlds. The proof of the pudding...

The 13.7-billion-year story of creation as we currently understand it leaves me more breathless with awe than any of the anthropomorophic fairy tales I learned as a child. It is the God of this grander creation -- who is not a person, who is not this and is not that, whose name we cannot speak and whose nature we do not know -- that we glimpse in the poetic language of the mystics, such as these words of Teilhard de Chardin: "Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mold the manifold so as to breath your life into it; I pray you, lay on us your hands -- powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us." Who will deny the depth and richness of a universe that is most immense and most inward within us and around us?

What do the heavens proclaim? We are an accidental and perhaps commonplace part of a universe that is vast beyond our comprehension, certainly now and perhaps forever. The ancients had it backwards: Our story is part of the universe's story, rather than the other way around. It is a measure of our coming of age as a species that we are able to accept this natural revelation, and gaze courageously into the cosmos of the myriad galaxies rather than remaining fixated on our own navels. Finding ourselves in a universe without a center, we are challenged to make our own center, by loving the place we are in and every creature in it.