It is easy to be impressed with science, and by and large science deserves its impressiveness, given all that it has achieved in the present age. For those of us who hold that rigorously structured thought is a good (and our only) bet at making real sense of the world and our existence, it has become easy to be tempted into putting all our eggs into the scientific basket. Anyone who has sincerely explored and understood science know that science is indomitable as a mechanism for understanding the natural universe, and at first it can seem obvious that this understanding is everything – or at least very nearly everything – that we can meaningfully know about as human beings.
I have come to think that this is something of an illusion. The mistake, I think, is in part being led to dismiss variety in terms of kind by being impressed with apparent scale. Most people would surely acknowledge that there are interesting items of thought lying outside the domain of science. But the material scale – in terms of space and time, say – covered by the scientific domain is so staggeringly vast, it begins to feel like it must therefore also cover the vast majority of possible human knowledge. Scientific knowledge is also capable of impressive rigor, and it can be tempting to suppose that all knowledge incapable of similar levels of verification is on that account unimportant. After all, if it is also true that virtually all of possible knowledge lies within the reach of science, why bother with anything else?
…the material scale covered by the scientific domain is so staggeringly vast, it begins to feel like it must therefore also cover the vast majority of possible human knowledge
I’ve been there myself, and now that I feel that I have moved past that, it is surprisingly hard to explain the shift. I think it must be acknowledged that much of it came first from feeling – which is of course a dangerous word in science. But feeling is still a quintessentially human thing, and I think no one can truly set about exploring the extra-scientific regions of human experience – things like morality, or beauty, meaning – without feeling that there is something strangely real about them. Now of course, feeling is never enough and on its own is often misleading – but (and even in practical scientific pursuits) it is often a clue that we dismiss at our own peril. It ought to be supplemented with reason. We have feelings of epiphany, and then we stop and take a critical look and we trace it out in articulate reason – a lot of the time, that is the outline of the genesis of knowledge.
Now here’s the thing – science is not obviously fundamental. It rests on some bedrock foundational assumptions that we’re not in the habit of turning over every now and then. And one of the critical assumptions is this rather incredulous proposition: that mental models of the universe, such as can be formulated in minds like ours: ape-like creatures that are part of the universe – can be a meaningful approximation of the universe itself. Keep in mind that when we say in science that we are studying the universe, or studying nature, we are actually studying a mental picture. Select information comes pouring in through our senses, and our minds somehow form an abstract interpretation with that input, and it is this interpretation – this reconstructed model of the external world that we put together from sensory data (including what we see when we read our instruments!) – that we are working with in science. We assume that this mental picture – this universe forged of senses and formed of thought – is significantly indicative of the “real thing” out there. What alternative do we have! Either abstract thought is somehow able to be in genuine touch with greater reality, or humans can know nothing.
Either abstract thought is somehow able to be in genuine touch with greater reality, or humans can know nothing.
But here’s the thing: if abstract thought has the possibility of being somehow resonant with greater reality, then it follows that all kinds of abstract thought may carry this possibility – not just the sort we employ in say the formulation of the laws of physics. Any pursuit of the mind that leads to interesting and structured complexity ought to begin rousing our suspicion. So the picture becomes different – a continuum of thought in which scientific thinking is only a slice of the pie. It becomes obvious that we ought to explore the other slices as well – the entire splendor of which human thought is capable – and see what shows up. So long as we can think that science covers the vast majority of meaningful knowledge it is sane to wish to be exclusively interested in science; but when this is no longer apparent, then we can no longer avoid mysticism.
…things like truth, virtue, objective value, beauty, imagination and art may after all be connected with an external reality that is beyond mere biological mental states
I’m jumping the gun a little bit here of course. Mysticism is a much-maligned word in today’s world that suffers from many poor interpretations, but I’m content here to merely mean the beginnings of the suspicion that things like truth, virtue, objective value, beauty, imagination and art may after all be connected with an external reality that is beyond mere biological mental states. Once we begin to entertain this idea, we can look back at the history of our race and begin to see more clearly, that we have always relentlessly and almost madly pursued what we might call the great Romances – furnished them with such mysterious creations as stories, songs, poetry, festivity, ritual and Worship. It should be no wonder that the world has been religious. For better or worse, we seem to have come with these romances built in, and we would be unwise to dismiss them on the rash assumption that science has supplanted them.