Science, Religion and the Pathless Land


Justin picture 3
Painting by Justin Adair

Kant described that “pathless land” (that “negative geography”) as a freedom to speak for oneself, trusting one’s own intelligence. And this implied that science at its best recognizes that its theories remain shadows on Plato’s cave. At its best science is attentive to deviations from what is believed to be real. And not in the way Karl Popper conceived of falsification, which is still reductive in its quest for a perfect theory. But rather, at its best science remains alert to what is “false in the true, and true in the false”, as Krishnamurti phrased it.

Creationists have an especially hard time with this. A mentality alert to anomalies in what is true and false doesn’t have a vested interest in defending its stories. The theories of science are not weak because they’re perpetually changing. They’re intended as provisional sketches of a universe wildly erring from anything we imagine. Or as the physicist Hans-Peter Dürr phrased it, “Science also speaks only in parables.”

But many scientific voices veered off on a technological tangent, searching for reality within the limited beam of objectively measurable things. Mind got excluded from matter and energy because it’s not a measurable thing. This robbed many scientists of their own conscience, their own voice. They found prestige as the voices of industry and military, becoming defensive of strictly materialist interpretations of reality, which support their masters. In a sense they became a new priestly authority speaking on our behalf using the obscure “Latin” of mathematics.

These priests tell the story of the universe as a lifeless machine. This story turned animals into automatons; the earth into resources. And it described the individual as an isolated spark of intelligence stranded in a wasteland of inanimate dust. In this story technology assumed the role of God, bestowing artificial intelligence on lifeless matter. It was a contagious new faith, dominating the Zeitgeist, with miracles far greater than any in the Bible. And now many worship their own image in the Adam and Eve of their computers, some perhaps even waiting for the second coming as a “singularity.”

This is no criticism of the voice of science, but of its co-option by a civilization afraid of what The Enlightenment unleashed. After all, it’s not just the Creationists who reject the critical awareness of science, but industry also, and a science in servitude to industry. In religion and commerce, a competitive scramble was unleashed for “personal truths” that could replace the consensus (albeit dogmatic) reality science destroyed. And so we all became carriers of this civilization’s structure of escape, building a new Babel of competing certainties.

And then we spread our alienation, hell-bent on finding a pot of gold, or anything to fill the hole opened by an imperfectly grasped freedom to speak for ourselves. We are, in a sense, refugees from the scientific revolution, decimating diverse realities in every land we colonize.

And the collapse of this Tower of Babel will either crush us with war and climate change, or the escapist delusions themselves will fall. One way or another it will mean the collapse of a world dedicated to unreality.


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