(7) Mouse’s Religion

2013-04-16 at 18-34-04 - 2013-04-16 at 18-34-04

Mouse is a kind of scientist, in his own way. Not that he’s a physicist, or a chemist, or that sort of scientist. What I mean is that he looks at things in the way that scientists are supposed to. But what he looks at are not the things that other people are looking at; he looks at the people who are doing the looking. He looks at how they look at things. He turns the whole process of the way they reach the conclusions they reach, upside down. And it is not so much the physicists and astronomers and biologists and so on that interest him, but how people reach their views about other things, such as politics and language and religion; all those soft and fuzzy, contentious areas, that people argue so strongly about. As a spin doctor, that stuff is his stock in trade. Of course, this kind of approach can’t help but have an effect upon the way you regard the conclusions that people reach, because you have seen how they reach them. And if you know how people reach their conclusions you can spin them around, so to speak.

He loves to watch the fight between science and religion. It often makes him laugh out loud: the gladiators of science charging out from the universities into the public arena, swinging their swords at “religious” beliefs, (when they should be swinging them against religious organisations – churches – for the way they systematically fail to live by their own beliefs). And he loves to see the Pharisees, dashing out of their temples, to shrilly defy these barbarian attacks, as if they had learned nothing from their run-ins with Galileo and others, forever digging new defensive ditches, only to eventually have to abandon them, too, as the juggernaut of discovery rolls over them. For mouse the whole thing is like a Punch and Judy show in virtual reality. Most scientists, though, ignore the whole thing and just get on with finding stuff out.

Mouse calls it “Virtual Reality”, because neither side of the debate has a clue about what they are doing. They don’t live in the real world. Those who seek to be seen as champions of “science” seem to have an outdated idea of science that comes from Plato: science as a single, coherent, logical enterprise, that uncovers the underlying laws that govern everything. But that view has pretty much died out among present-day science watchers, since the advent of relativity theory, anyway. And quantum theory has put the nail in the coffin of Newton’s view, which was essentially a religious view of the discovery of a sort of Divine “clockwork” Order in the Universe anyway. Only superannuated science-controversialists espouse it now, because we realise now that there is no such thing as “Science”, it is simply a term of convenience. There are only clusters of similar scientists, trying to find out how the world works, whose methods bear vague resemblances to each other, whose activities we could call “sciences” in the plural. In the singular, “science” is an activity word, a bit like “Dancing”, “Fishing”, or “Sport”: your kind of sport is very different from mine, and both of us do it for different reasons and a different way from, say, Don Bradman (google it!). It is about what you are trying to do. That’s why the continentals call all disciplined and systematic inquiry about any topic whatsoever a “Science” (and that includes Theology!).

And religious beliefs are not a set of statements about empirical reality either. They are not scientific statements at all. They are ways of indirectly talking about special kinds of experiences. These experiences are essentially untalkaboutable, but very real to those who undergo them. Talking about them is like talking about what bacon tastes like: it is very hard to describe it to someone who hasn’t tasted or smelled it. As the opening words of the Dao have it: the way that can be spoken of is not the true way. That doesn’t stop people trying to tie it all down, like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver, borrowing ropes of ossified metaphors from the language of Law and Philosophy, and even the language of scientists but failing to recognise that they are metaphors. It seems to be a rule that the various symbols, allegories, parables, outdated physics, ancient anthropology and psychology drawn upon must be at least so old that it has been forgotten that when they are applied to the ineffable they can seriously mess things up (you picked it: that was a Mousism!). Yes, both people who talk about science and theologians use the language of scientists, only theologians use the language of 2,000 year old Aristotelian “science”, while the others all too often draw on the language of merely 100 year old pre-Einstein science.

Mouse always shakes his head in incredulity when he thinks about the science /religion debate and how the science side makes exactly the same mistake about religious beliefs as the Pharisees on the religious side: they see religious statements of belief as being factual statements in somewhat the same way as they believe scientific statements are. But this is a distinctly modern view of language. The ancient religious writers didn’t see their writing quite that way. Sure, at a commonsensical level when they said Jesus or Buddha said x or y, they often (but not always) meant it as a statement of fact, i.e. it was actually said, but they did not view what was said as necessarily being a bald statement of fact. They were well aware of the different forms of speaking and writing. (Rhetoricists had been writing about tropes, symbols, tokens, allegory, figures of speech etc since hundreds of years B.C.E.)

They read the words in many different ways, sometimes as poetry, sometimes as allegory. After all, they were familiar with various traditions of storytelling, drama, and parable. And, more than that, those editors and compilers who added, subtracted, and rewrote earlier texts, sometimes decades, even centuries after the first versions of them appeared, were also well aware that they were not always writing what was actually said. They were often aware that they were writing what should have been said, what must have been said, or what it would be fitting to have been said. Somewhere along the line this understanding of the rhetorical character of religious talk was lost by the more inflexible kinds of “religious” people. Of course, none of that means that the ‘poetry’ of religious writings does not somehow reveal truths, or provide useful guidance or whatever. All that the above tells us is that human language comes in a variety of modes. It tells us nothing about whether the poetry contains poetic truths, or the parables reveal moral truths or whatever – nothing about the validity of the different ways we use language. But if the defenders of religion don’t recognize the way language works, they aren’t any better than the capital S Scientists. They take the university controversialists nonsense seriously, as if there really was a coherent enterprise called science, and a single “scientific method”, that could be argued to be better than religious thinking.

What there is, of course, is a great diversity of views and ways of finding stuff out and behind it all the truly mysterious, not to say weird universe that quantum mechanics reveals to us, at the heart of which quantum theorists (at least, of the Copenhagen school) find a deeper reality made up of something like intelligence, or at least, information. And when they set the mathematics aside, and try to describe the quantum world, quantum theorists reach for the metaphors just as easily and as often as the theologians do. And even the mathematics comes in quite different versions, with quite different implications (meanings). To believe in a Source, a Centre, a Whole, or even a God, is not totally out of place anymore; not clearly unscientific in the way it might have seemed to many 100 years ago. It fits right in there with the diversity, uncertainty and mystery of the Universe.

(6) Mouse (almost) gives up.

Yesterday, Mouse and I were strolling through a park near Parliament. Mouse seemed rather glum, so I asked him there was anything wrong.

” The other day, Rey,” he said, ” I was doing a bit of research for a speech I was writing…”

“Who were you writing it for, Mouse?”

” You know I can’t tell you that. But think of the dumbest most duplicitous MP, and you’ll have guessed it.”

“The Prime Minister!” I quipped.

” Cut it out, Rey! Do you want to hear this story or not?”

“OK, shoot!” I said.

” Where was I…Oh, yes. I was looking at online news stories about the main topic of the speech. As usual, they distorted the facts, or made up ‘alternative’ ones, and failed to understand a thing about what was really going on behind the scenes, but then I got onto the ‘comments, section, which I don’t normally look at. Whoah! I said to myself, this is crazy. It was Wild West time. No one seemed interested in the facts or in whether their arguments, plausible or implausible could be supported by logic or evidence. They just wanted to score. ”

Mouse looked at me with horrified eyes, “It was like looking at myself[…]”

“How is that different from what we have always done?” I asked.

“Its completely different, Rey. I mean, Rey, that everyone had a point of view, right. That’s not new. And that meant that each person saw things at least a little differently. But you felt you could maybe get a fairly rounded view if you went round the viewing circle, 360′, and put all the views together. You could do that because most people were only dimly aware of how one-sided their viewpoint was. They were mostly feeling that they were telling something roughly true, even if a bit was being left out and there was a bit of exaggeration. If you called them liars they would be indignant. Its not like that anymore.”

I had never seen Mouse so despondent. “What is it like, Mouse?” I asked.

” I think its the things in society that have increasingly worked against real education that’ve done us in, Rey. Though, probably not for want of schools trying to teach people that truth isn’t always so simple to find and that you need to balance imperfect knowledge with doubt. Somehow the negative culture outside the school rather than an idea of balance and limited scepticism has won out. Nearly everyone under 50 has been told at school about advertising and its tricks, but they have taken that too much to heart. If you are under 40 you have probably heard all about ‘ideology’.  Problem is the tendency to make schools into economic devices for rationing life-opportunities mean there was less and less room for ‘clear thinking’ and ‘kinds of evidence’, and about the remedies for too much ideology. Fewer people believe in ‘truth’ anymore. Most under 30s doubt there is such a thing. Now, I’m not saying there ever was, Rey, in any absolute sense, but people once believed some kind and degree of truth was possible. They had this ideal of truth. Maybe from an ideal view of science or maybe from an idea of ‘common sense’, even from religion. They still hankered after the truth. Now, many people have given up on it”

” There’s a difference between doubting that perfect and complete truth is possible, Mouse, and deliberately ignoring the idea altogether.”

“Yes. You’re right Rey. But what’s happening more and more is that when you give up on the truth you don’t just shut up and say nothing, you say anything, anything at all, as long as it gets you what you want.” Mouse said.

” What you’re saying, Mouse, is that when you give up on truth its only a small step to longer be bothered by lies.”

“Exactly! We didn’t just lose a good thing, the ‘truth’, we lost a bad thing, the ‘untruth’. Now, anything goes and whatever you say it is neither good or bad, only useful or not, and that’s what worries me. Professionally, I mean. I’m starting to feel like the doctors. Everybody is diagnosing themselves, making up imaginary diseases and worse, imaginary cures. I don’t know what to do, Rey.”

“Why don’t you try to turn it around, Mouse. Give up putting a spin on half-truths, and start being a bullshit-caller, a fact checker. There’s a lifetime’s work there, Mouse. Although I don’t know how you could make it pay.”

“I’ll find a way, Rey. I’ll find a way. Thanks for that Rey, I needed that. Maybe I can just slip the facts in quite subtly so people don’t know they’re being told the truth. This requires some thought, Rey.”

“That’s another thing, Mouse. Thought. Maybe it will catch on again. You know, Mouse, logic, evidence, a degree of scepticism, examination of different people’s arguments, respect for your fellow inquirers, acknowledging you have your own biases. Nuance, Mouse. All that stuff.”

“Rey, you are a tonic. An absolute tonic. I had almost given up there for a while.”