Letters to Bill: Truth, science, religion, and how we might approach them all simultaneously

Infinity symbol from openclipart.org

So I’m a huge fan of Bill Maher, and I adore that he’s an atheist, and I know how weird that is, given that he’d probably be appalled by my profession–or at least, he’d be appalled by one of my professions, reading tarot. (I doubt he’d be bothered by my science writing and editing.) To most of the Bill Mahers of the world, tarot reading looks like fantasy and mythmaking at best, and superstition and possibly fraud, at worst.

So I’d like to take a moment, today (on a day when I sincerely hope that Bill is returning to the air after his show took a month off) to address some of the underlying issues inherent in this point of view, and what better way to do that than in a letter to Bill? Or more likely, a series of letters, because I cannot possibly put all my thoughts about this topic in just one letter. So here goes:

Dear Bill,

I agree with you on the primacy of science. The Dalai Lama does, too, by the way, having famously said that in matters where science can prove Buddhism wrong, science should win. Actually, his exact words were: “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” (The Universe in a Single Atom: the Convergence of Science and Spirituality.)

However, it’s worthwhile to take a moment to stop and consider what science is and what it isn’t. Because when we simply dismiss views that do not match our own, without investigating them thoroughly and properly, we are not being scientific. I’m assuming that your view is that truth, scientifically speaking, is rooted in those facts that we can quantify. Things that are measurable and empirical. Things that are evidence-based.

And I agree with that. But at the same time, our view of what constitutes an evidence-based, quantifiable fact is, very often, based not so much on science, but on our common sense view of such things. We tend to look at facts as meanings that can be nailed down. But at least since Einstein, we’ve known that not all facts can be nailed down. Some facts are relative. For example (let’s not get into quantum mechanics yet, although we probably will eventually), consider the phenomenon that astrologers go crazy about three or four times per year: Mercury retrograde.* Astrologers refer to Mercury as retrograde when it, from the point of view of Earth, appears to move backwards in its orbit, even though astrologers, like scientists, know perfectly well that Mercury hasn’t suddenly started to move backwards, it just LOOKS that way from here. In fact, as well, who are we to say that Mercury is moving “forward” in the first place? Forward, when we’re talking about a planet moving in its orbit, is a very arbitrary term. WTF is the “front” of a planet? We could just as easily have said that it moves backwards normally and we could have called the retrograde “going forward,” and that would be just as correct.

This is not a perfect example, because no matter what words we use to refer to Mercury’s movement, it is indeed moving around our Sun. That might feel like a fact that we CAN nail down. But more truthfully, we can only say that Mercury has been orbiting our Sun for a certain period of time, and that we expect it to continue to do so for a certain period of time. It wasn’t always doing so, it just seems that way to us, and it won’t always continue to do. The physical matter (mostly iron) that makes up the planet Mercury wasn’t always where it is now–it isn’t even, now, where it is now, but for convenience, for our purposes, it essentially is. It’s close enough that we may as well pretend that’s so, because we didn’t exist before Mercury was in its current orbit and we won’t exist when it ceases to be there. Still, though–I feel more comfortable acknowledging that our view of Mercury is RELATIVE to where and when we are right now. If we lived in another solar system or at another time or with different levels of technology, we would see Mercury differently or not at all.

It may sound like I’m splitting hairs, but this is important. It’s important because we have to recognize that the truth, the actual, quantifiable, evidence-based truth, is still a thing that we can’t nail down. We have to untether our view of it. More truthful than an attempt to nail it down would be to honestly say, this is how this matter stands, today, in this place, but this hasn’t always been the case, it won’t always continue to be the case, and even now, in this place and time, to nail down this fact is always already (yes, I’m sorry, I’m going to have get Derridian on you a little bit) to be somewhat untruthful in that we’re always already leaving part of the truth out: we’re leaving out the entire context, we’re leaving out the motion that is taking place within Mercury by only looking at the movement that it undergoes as a larger unit, but we are aware that Mercury is made up of matter that is made up of atoms that are made up of subatomic particles that vibrate and move and that some of these subatomic particles have their own orbits that they undergo at the same time that the planet as a whole is orbiting the Sun. The FULL truth is something that we could zoom in on or zoom out on. Which part is more true, the zooming in or the zooming out? Of course, neither, they are both true, but they do show us different aspects of what’s true.

So let’s try to zoom in and zoom out at the same time, or at least, let’s try to switch back and forth between zooming in and zooming out quickly, and try to include both the micro and macro level views of reality at the same time, even though we are totally doomed to fail in this attempt (and in fact we always already have failed to do so).

For me, when I untether my view of reality and the truth, I see that while I can’t nail down a fact and make it stay in one place for any amount of time at all, what I can see, albeit only when I put away my hammer and nails, is patterns. As a teenager, what this meant to me was that it seemed VERY unlikely that only humans can think. That we alone in the universe count as persons. That would make us some kind of weird anomaly, and that just seems unlikely, given that what I see in the world around me is repeating patterns, not things that only happen once and never again. This insight, to me, when I was young, told me that in all likelihood, animals have thoughts and feelings and would probably prefer that I not eat them. I couldn’t prove that scientifically (since that time, though, scientists have proven this with regard to many species), but my assessment was that based on the patterns and parallels that I see, it seemed likely to be true. And this was why I became a vegetarian.

Likewise, this is the insight that makes me not Christian and not monotheist, but is also the insight that makes me inclined to believe that there are probably some forms of life that take thinking and acting to a whole different level than humans do. Because when I look at reality untethered from the things that we assume, what I see is levels, and diversity, and patterns that repeat through every level. So, for example, I’m a person, a human person, but you could take living cells out of my body, keep them alive, and I would still continue to exist as a person despite having lost some parts of myself that are now living independently of me.** So, there are living creatures that can even get small enough to live inside me (or you), there can be whole colonies of beings that live inside me or in my home or in my environment, of whom I’m unaware, but who are affected by my actions. I am more complicated than those microbial beings in that I have more levels, more organ systems, as well as in that I’m larger physically than they are. And I have power in their world that they can’t even conceive of. It would be surprising if they could even conceive of my existence.

It wouldn’t be surprising if the reverse is also true. It wouldn’t be surprising if there are beings out there that have more levels than we do, that are potentially as different from us as we are from microbes, or that exist in ways that we don’t have the senses, or that we don’t have the proper nerve receptors, to see. In terms of the general structure, therefore, of life and how it exists in the world, I think it’s unlikely that we humans are the most complex life form around. It seems likely to me, because the universe, or multiverse as I often prefer to call it, is diverse, that there are beings that are more complicated that us, that we might not be able to even conceive of how they operate in their contexts, that we might not have the ability to empirically experience them or measure them in their totality, but they could still exist.

To us, such beings might well look very supernatural; they might look like angels or demons or deities.

Such beings could also, conceivably, have a level of complication that is parallel to ours, but that we don’t have the sensors to measure or even detect. Just because we have senses that include vision, hearing, touch, proprioception, the ability to notice temperature, etc., that’s no reason no assume that the things we can detect with our senses are the only types of information out there. Why should we assume that we have the full catalogue of possible senses? What makes us so special?

If the categories of beings that we have difficulty in even detecting include beings that are so much more complicated than we are as to be reasonably regarded as deities, however–and this is why I can’t ever be monotheist–it defies my impression of the patterns I see to think that there would be only ONE such being. There would have to be infinitely many, just as there are potentially infinitely many of every other category of life form that we know of.

I don’t see how it’s unscientific to consider that this is a real possibility. What I do see as unscientific is to dismiss outright the experiences of people who have experienced unexplained things, to WITHOUT INVESTIGATION label their lived experience as lies, myths, stupidity, or mental illness. Of course, any given experience might be a lie or a myth, or could be the product of a diseased or irrational brain. But it also might not. Because if you want to start looking at the data that makes it into your brain, or anyone’s brain, you have to start by recognizing that the brain filters all the data that enters it, and constructs its own perspective. So you and I could sit in the same room, even if we are equally healthy and equally intelligent, and experience the same temperature, the same lighting, the same noise levels, etc., and still have a very different experience of sitting in that room, and we could both be right, insofar as anyone can ever be “right.”

Moreover, we have no particular reason to think that our ancestors, the ones who brought us religion, astrology, divination, and the like, were either generally very dumb or generally were a bunch of pathological liars or were generally very mentally ill. I would argue that we have every reason to believe they were smarter than we are, given that they had practical skills you and I certainly don’t have, given that they invented math, given that they were keen observers who figured out how to predict the movements of the stars in the sky, given that they invented engineering, given that they invented music and literature, given that they figured out how to do medicine (not always well, but often surprisingly well given their time and place), etc. I think we have to give some of humanity’s ancestors credit for intelligence applied patiently, which is where we get things like math, science, engineering, medicine, the arts, writing, etc.

So if you are going to argue that the purveyors of religion and divination in ancient times were complete idiots or total frauds, I’d have to say that I don’t think that hypothesis fits the evidence that we have. And we need to take another hard look at that evidence before we make such a rash assumption.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as knowledge or truth or facts, because of course there is. Or at least, falsehoods exist. Not everything is equally true. It’s just that we don’t get to choose some facts and not others, and we can’t just dismiss a viewpoint without proper investigation, if it has some evidence on its side to recommend it. Even if we try to nail our facts to the ground, our ground is going to continue hurtling through space whether we notice that or not. I think we’re better off noticing that we’re hurtling through space, and constructing our hypotheses about what truth is or what reality is in a way that recognizes that, hey, what we currently believe, based on the best available evidence, could all still turn out to be nonsense. Scientists know that about their own theories. Scientists know that the theory is made to fit the pieces of the puzzle together, but it might have to all get taken apart again when they find new pieces to the puzzle. They don’t just get to throw away some of the pieces.

And as I hope you’ll note, what I’m saying to you could just as easily, and possibly more justifiably, be said to an evangelical Christian. We all, religious people, skeptics, and also those of us who believe both in faith and in science, have to open our hands and gently let go of the doctrines that we want to make everyone accept. Because the truth is that we all have SOME pieces of the puzzle. We’re not going to piece it all together unless we patiently sit down together and patiently follow the threads (this puzzle is woven, I’m pretty sure! But as with everything else I’ve said here, I could be wrong, or you could experience it differently).

I have more to say about this. More letters to follow.


*A note on Mercury retrograde: I’m not suggesting that this isn’t a real phenomena, because it hits me very hard, in my lived experience, every time it happens. If you go to my search bar and search for Mercury retrograde, you should be able to find things I’ve said about it in the past, and maybe you can even find my post about the science of Mercury retrograde. In a nutshell, Mercury is in some sense a magnet orbiting our Sun, it has magnetic tornadoes, it affects electromagnetic energy traveling from the Sun to Earth, and so, it is not totally irrational to think it could affect satellite communications, for example, and any technology that depends on satellite communications or electromagnetic energy, and any being that relies on electrical impulses to run its nervous system (hint, that’s us).

**Nope, we’re not going to talk about pregnancy and childbirth right now, not going there today, but sure, we could go there and could make arguments on either side with regard to abortion, though personally, I tend to insist on my own consciousness being the one that gets to decide what happens in my body, even though my body sometimes rebels and impinges on my consciousness with various forms of pain, discomfort, and distraction.

Note: the infinity symbol at the top of this post is from openclipart.org.


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