Monday, January 23, 2012

How things are

Any global tradition needs to begin with a shared worldview -- a culture-independent, globally accepted consensus as to how things are. From my perspective, this part is easy. How things are is, well, how things are: our scientific account of Nature, an account that can be called The Epic of Evolution. The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, the origin and evolution of life on this planet, the advent of human consciousness and the resultant evolution of cultures -- this is the story, the one story, that has the potential to unite us, because it happens to be true.
I quote from the Introduction of Ursula Goodenough's wonderful book The Sacred Depths of Nature. Readers will know of my admiration for Ursula and her book (if you want a concise introduction to biology, you can't do better). However, I would take gentle exception to one statement in the above passage: "because it happens to be true." I would have said: "because it is the most reliable story we have at the moment."

Actually, I think Ursula would agree. Science is not an infallible body of doctrine. It is an always evolving approximation of "the way things are" based on the widest possible consensus among scientists at any given time. Is it true? It is as true as you can get until it isn't.

Scientists are constantly holding the scientific story of how things are against the refining fire of experience. Generally this means tinkering here and there on the edges of "truth." Occasionally it means a wholesale revamp of fundamental ideas. One could write a book on the confirming characteristics of scientific "truth": empirical consistency, economy, beauty, parsimony, and so on. But if you want the most impressive confirmation of the reliability of the scientific story of how things are, look around you. Science is a truth system that has given us the entirety of modern technology and medical science. As the old Rheingold beer commercial used to say, "We must be doing something right."

It's a story that has the potential to unite us, as Goodenough says, and in practice it does (we all fly airplanes, use the internet, and rely on penicillin). But only in practice. I fear Ursula is too optimistic if she thinks the scientific story of how things are is about to replace any of the other stories of how things are that dominate the lives of the vast majority of humans -- and set us at each other's throats, story against story.

Why are the ancient stories so resilient, in the face of the overwhelming practical success of science? A suggested answer tomorrow.