Thursday, July 7, 2011

Preamble II: What Science Is (and why it matters)

Human consciousness confronts the mysteries of reality with two general sorts of questions: the ‘How?’ questions, and the ‘Why?’ questions. Both ‘How?’ and 'Why?’ questions can and should be debated, but it must be understood that the ‘How?’ questions (e.g., "How does the solar system work? Is the Earth the center of the universe or does it orbit the Sun?” and, “How did our species come to be? Are we related to monkeys?”) can and should be addressed almost exclusively by the scientific method, and when a consensus of investigators arrives at a model (paradigm) which best captures all (or at least the great majority) of the "facts" revealed by experimentation, and is not obviously contradicted by any of the established facts, then the "theory" (the Heliocentric Model of the Solar System, the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection) becomes accepted, and can only be challenged by additional "facts" revealed by scientific investigation.

An accepted paradigm can never, however, be challenged by mythologies, fables, or legends passed down from antiquity, unless these explanations are also rigorously scrutinized by science, and are able to withstand the same level of testing as other facts. Therefore (for example) the creation story contained in the first chapter of the Bible (Genesis 1) has essentially been rendered obsolete as a "how" explanation of human existence. To admit it as a relevant idea in scientific literacy and education is rationally indefensible, and ultimately dangerous and destructive.

The contemplation of the great mystery, the "Why?" question (Why is there something rather than nothing and why does that something evolve into beings which can think and feel and wonder 'Why?') is properly within the realm of religion. The story of ‘The Fall’ contained in Genesis 2, for example, is a profound myth regarding the emergence of human self-consciousness, and its psychological implications/interpretations continue to be examined and debated by scholars. "Good" religion is a celebration of the experience of the mystery of existence which is resonant with reality as revealed by science, “Bad” (or counterproductive) religion is characterized by dogmas which are contradicted by science but nonetheless embraced as "truth" by the believer. "Faith" defined as “belief without evidence” or even “belief contrary to evidence” becomes a profound stumbling block to rational, discursive attempts to resolve the problems which collectively confront us.

Footnote: It is probably no coincidence that the percentage of Americans who are unconcerned about Climate Change is almost exactly the same percentage as those Americans who do not fully accept the Theory of Evolution (60% in both cases, by far the highest among developed nations). The political ramifications of such a widespread failure of rational thought on our collective ability to deal with planetary crisis of non-sustainability will be explored in future blogs.

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