Tuesday, December 12, 2006

"Humanity's Place in Nature"

"... the picture of humanity’s place in nature that has emerged from scientific inquiry has profound consequences for people’s understanding of the human condition. The discoveries of science have cascading effects, many unforeseeable, on how we view ourselves and the world in which we live: for example, that our planet is an undistinguished speck in an inconceivably vast cosmos; that all the hope and ingenuity in the world can’t create energy or use it without loss; that our species has existed for a tiny fraction of the history of the earth; that humans are primates; that the mind is the activity of an organ that runs by physiological processes; that there are methods for ascertaining the truth that can force us to conclusions which violate common sense, sometimes radically so at scales very large and very small; that precious and widely held beliefs, when subjected to empirical tests, are often cruelly falsified."

Steven Pinker, "Less Faith, More Reason"

1 comment:

mrjumbo said...

Far be it from me to question the wisdom from Harvard, but methinks Pinker puts too much faith in reason.

He also may have forgotten the role of faith in the foundation of his particular temple of reason. Where would he be employed today were it not for John Harvard's faith in education?

Why the tension between faith and reason? Why not put more reason in your faith? Or more faith in your reason? Is truth a bowl that can hold only so much milk and so much muesli, and one must be sacrificed if we want more of the other? Or are faith and reason (and belief and understanding and knowledge and imagination) like sodium and water: pretty unproductive alone but much more exciting--and expansive--commingled?

Pinker is right to say that reason has led us to all kinds of wonderful understandings of the world and our place in it. But his apparent distaste and lack of understanding for faith's place in the workings of the mind and heart leaves him sounding like a crank grumbling about why we bother to use color in art, when all art really needs is sensible forms. A curriculum that evades faith is not an education.

Much of science leans too hard on spiritual quests to survive long without the same fuels that power religion. How did we get here? What comes next? What are we made of? What is good? What is right? Why do we care? Should we care? What is the nature of inspiration? Why do we spend countless hours of scientific inquiry plumbing the catacombs of the universe with Hubble and Chandra? Reasoning out the behavior of dimensions we will probably never see? Plenty of scientific energy is expended in quests along the same trade routes established by 5,000 years of religious thought. I would not propose we stop those who would explore. Nor should we blinker them by denying that a spiritual hunger is natural in humans. Scientific inquiry is one means of addressing that hunger.

Wrenches are good for one kind of work. Paintbrushes are good for another. Reason is a powerful tool. Faith illuminates in a different way--whether faith in a religion, or faith in a scientific method, or faith in humanity. Faith is not by definition blind. Neither should we allow reason to be.