Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Belief/evidence

When I was young and interesting, I found myself in a 'science and religion' group periodically engaged in dialogue and in that group I noticed one thing that has intrigued me ever since: beliefs resistance to evidence (or empiricism).

It was revealed to me first when a distinguished Jesuit theologian expressed a preference for dialogue with 'mainstream' scientists, namely those who prescribed to the still-dominant underlying materialist perspective, rather than those present who reflected emergent non-reductionist patterns of thinking (rooted in systems theory or complexity or exploring traditionally 'taboo' phenomena [within science] as 'psychic studies'). Or, alternatively, those scientists were preferred, who were professed believers, and whose practice of science was seen to be in a parallel domain to that of their religion. Science did not precede as a threat to religious claims (or vice versa) because they were different kinds of discourse.

This pattern has subsequently been reaffirmed in a psychological context when I have heard priests express a preference for Freud over Jung because, I presume, the former, as a resolute atheist, does not pose a claim on the professed space of the priest. Freud's religious claims are dismissive (and his main body of work can be assessed without coming to an opinion about their credibility) whereas Jung's claims are corrective to religion and an assessment of their credibility is integral to an accounting of his work as a whole.

In that group (of distant past) was the biologist, Rupert Sheldrake, who is undoubtedly perceived as 'heretical' from that mainstream of (a materialist) understanding of science (and possibly from religion too); and, reading his sound 'The Science Delusion: Freeing the Spirit of Enquiry' reminded me of the challenges of actually listening to evidence and allowing it to be corrective of belief.

Sheldrake wants us to take what he describes as the canons of materialist dogma and see if they can be placed in question and what are the consequences for scientific enquiry if they are?

It is a very lucid and accomplished exploration of some of those key questions. My favourite concerns whether our minds are confined to our brains? He begins with the dynamics of sight - how is it that what we see is not 'a picture in our head' but a world out there, in motion, that moves with us? It is not that Sheldrake deploys an 'answer' but that the realization that we do not have an answer and the now traditional 'scientific' answer does not, in fact, work. It does not account for our experience and show a realistic mechanism for how that experience arises.

Likewise for memory being seen as laying down physical traces in our brain. This is how it must work our current belief tell us but even after almost eighty years of diligent research, no trace has been found, nor mechanisms for laying such a trace down, and indeed animals/people with virtually no brain hardware, persist in remembering. Once again this is not a challenge that requires us to believe something different, it is a question that requires us to look differently at the evidence we have and discover new avenues of enquiry.

So too with his account of 'psychic research' into such things as telepathy. It simply will not do to dismiss the evidence as flawed because accepting it would change how we understand the world (how we would have to correct our beliefs). Sheldrake compellingly describes just how careful parapsychology is (as compared to other branches of science) in adopting 'blind trail' methodologies to collect its evidence. He is, also, both disturbing (and funny) about his encounters with skeptics (famous and otherwise) who have not bothered to assess the evidence because it cannot be 'true'!

But what is most exciting about the book is helping to lay to rest the notion that comes around cyclically that almost everything worth discovering has been discovered and now we are working out the details. The universe is, in fact, barely understood and the opportunity for new discovery is immense. 96% of the universe, for example, is apparently 'dark matter'. It "has to be' for our current understanding of how the universe was formed to 'work'. We know virtually nothing about 'dark matter' and nobody has 'seen' any. If that is not an enticing problem, there is always 'dark energy' which may or may not exist and may or may not be 'increasing'!

But even on the humble plain of 'seen reality', we do not know how an acorn grows into an oak tree, how the acorn differentiates into its diverse forms...and so on and so forth!

Curiosity has much space in which to operate (if we allow it).


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