Embrace Science - Short Version


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Having identified a difference or a lack or coordination between Quakerism and science, I explore what Quakerism might usefully learn from science. I am not interested in prolonging the historical antipathy of science and religion. I am looking for a way forward, not a way back.

I see science as the complement of mysticism not its antagonist. A balance of the two gives a powerful platform for the future. Mysticism allows us to contemplate, to wonder at and to appreciate what we don’t understand, to accept what is paradoxical but true, to have fun and to cope with adversity. Science shows how things work and exposes the eternal behind the everyday world.

Science is the search for reliable and trustworthy truth about the world and about ourselves. Reviewing science’s knowledge of the world and evolution uncovers a number of interesting trends. Among them is the idea that science and the universe are open knowledge systems in contrast to the closed systems of traditional religions and political beliefs, from which new properties emerge as development progresses. The review justifies moral values in the context of the survival of human communities. It also suggests, at least to me, a new view of God with an external objective aspect and an personally experienced aspect.

Science was known to the ancient Greeks most notably Aristotle, Pythagoras, Euclid and Euler. In the Middle Ages advances in astronomy put science in opposition to the accepted Bible-based theories of everything. Modern science was born when Newton and others founded the Royal Society in the seventeenth century and developed the experimental method of testing theories to give us objective, trustworthy, reliable information about our world and ourselves.

In the nineteenth century Darwin’s Origin of Species set Victorian Britain aflame with controversy and in the early twentieth century Hoyle and Hubble’s public debate was finally settled when the Big Bang theory of the origin of the universe was established experimentally. This was the coup de grace for the literal interpretation of the Genesis story, but there are still many Christians and religionists who maintain its absolute truth.

The development of science in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology and sociology has transformed the world in which we live, our culture and our behaviour. In spite of this, religion, and Quakerism in particular, has not adapted its beliefs, philosophy or teachings to reflect our new understanding or our recent way of life.

Science has given us a body of knowledge and understanding that is independent of personal opinion or belief, and based on objective verifiable evidence. The facts are organised and coordinated into abstract theories and models with application across a range of real practical situations. This has been achieved through careful observation, rigorous testing in controlled experimentation and vigorous public examination.

Clearly science is a search for truth, the truth about the physical tangible real world in which we live and the intangible realities that describe it and make it understandable. Science is an open knowledge system in several senses. It is public and open to scrutiny. It is a growing and developing system with new evidence, understanding and methods emerging all the time. There are very few absolutes or constants in science, but the most important is the scientists' devotion to the truth.

For me the parallels with Quakerism are compelling.

A brief review of my understanding of religion showed that it too is ‘a theory of everything’, an attempt to explain and understand the world around us. Unlike science, religion provides authority for the way things are and the way they should be. It provides a moral code of conduct – an ethic. The basis for religion is belief, authority and tradition. The basis for science is objective evidence. I see these as complementary quests for truth not mutually exclusive alternatives.

Under the spur of the early Kindlers1 sessions in 2008, I re-examined my understanding of science and Quakerism. In particular I asked myself whether there is any objective justification for a moral ethic, a virtuous life, based on the experience of science.

My reading of the origins of the universe, the origin of life, the origin of species and the origin of modern man, led me to conclude that there is indeed a moral justification for a virtuous life beyond self-interested hedonism. The core ideas were that the whole of creation is an open system in which we have evolved with new abilities that were (at best) potentials in the dawn of the Big Bang. Emergence through evolution is core. There is no reason to believe that emergence or evolution themselves have stopped or changed in any fundamental way.

Another core idea is that in humans, self-consciousness and subjective experience have emerged. This phenomenon opened the whole world of spiritual life.

Taken together these two ideas changed my idea of God to one that has an objective aspect that is explored in science, technology and engineering and a subjective aspect that I experience internally. What links the two is the understanding that subjective experience and all that it brings with it, has emerged in the course of our evolution.

It has been suggested that the reason that modern man Homo sapiens, survived and populated the world much more successfully than our now extinct closest relative Neanderthal man, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis is that we have the greater ability to create flexible, adaptive societies. This is fundamentally different from the instinctive organisations of bees, ants, herd animals and so on.

Here lies the clue to the moral imperative. Successful societies (and hence our species) require that self-aware, spiritual individuals choose to act responsibly to cooperate in forming and in operating the society as it changes, in its own maturity and in response to external changes. I find it comforting that both science from an objective view and religion from a traditional, subjective view, arrive at similar moral and ethical imperatives.

Science also has a method to teach in the quest for truth. Science uses a method of questioning and testing, of looking for objective evidence – free of distracting personal bias. Scientists are also creative, artistic and intuitive. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a passionate and spiritual exercise. What use can Quakerism make of rigorous questioning and testing?

Thirdly science teaches mechanisms and models – its theories – that when applied in real practical situations give us reliable ways to change the world.

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