Stepping Stones and Stumbling Blocks

Stepping Stones and Stumbling Blocks

To the extent that people think for themselves they will be of differing opinions. These opinions, expressed without fear, form a free market place of ideas. In such a market one may go shopping for an ensemble of thoughts to fit one’s own personality. This is as it should be; collecting a wardrobe of philosophical vestments can be a personal growth experience, and no two shoppers will end up identical.

“Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions”

Oliver Wendell Holmes

When, however, you run across a body of people whose opinions are largely consistent, then you have found people who do not go shopping. These people wear the philosophical uniform of some thoroughgoing creed or orthodoxy. New ideas are not welcomed, and the orthodoxy provides one-size-fits-all answers to most questions. Followers need only don the habit of belief.

This dichotomy is closely congruent to the contrast between science and religion. When two scientists disagree about some aspect of Mother Nature they go back to the physical Universe and make further observations until one theory or the other gains a higher probability of being true. In other words, there is a way of resolving scientific disputes. Once a scientific dispute or question has been settled, it becomes a “stepping stone” for further inquiry, and usually generates a whole set of new questions. Proceeding in this manner since the inception of the scientific revolution, a vast body of knowledge has been produced. Open the class catalog of any major university and look under “Science” to see the extensive scope of current scientific investigation. Scientific theory or “knowledge” is continually being upgraded and expanded by a self-correcting process. In addition, the process is civil in nature; no one is likely to die because of a scientific dispute.

On the other hand when adherents of differing religious attitudes disagree on some metaphysical or supernatural tenant, there is no way of resolving the issue. No data can be collected that will shed light on the problem. Consequently, religions tend to be rigid and very slow to change. Furthermore, the total documented content of major religions is comparatively small so the same ground is plowed over and over again. In the past some religious advocates have become so frustrated with their inability to gain the upper hand for their particular beliefs that they resorted to the uncivil process of simply eliminating those who believe differently. This represents an extreme course of action but, unfortunately, history is replete with examples.

“Men differ daily about things which are subject to sense. Is it likely then they should agree about things invisible?”

Benjamin Franklin

Even so, if religions would only stick to the metaphysical and supernatural then conflict with science would not really be a serious problem. Science, after all, is scrupulously careful about dealing only with the physical Universe. Only data collected via the senses is considered valid for scientific use. Mathematical constructs are sometimes hypothesized, but they don’t gain acceptance until confirmed by observation. Religions, on the other hand, often takes issue with science concerning the nature of physical reality. Typical examples include human origins (anthropology), the validity of evolution (biology), and the age of the Earth (geology). A dispute of this sort is difficult to resolve short of a court order. Such a ruling, however, usually leaves one party or the other unconvinced even though it may settle the matter legally. Court rulings usually favor the scientific point of view because, like science, the rules of legal evidence are, at their most fundamental level, based on perception of the senses. In court, testimony is the most basic form of evidence, and consists of what is said by a competent witness. A witness is deemed competent when, among other things, he has perceived something with his senses that is relevant to the case.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) is widely acclaimed today as one of the founders of modern science. Yet he was censured by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for expounding his views on astronomy and physics. Today Galileo is almost a household name, but not many people could tell you the name of the Pope who was responsible for his banishment from Italian society. This is not just an ancient story, similar conflicts are going on today. The only difference is religions, at least in the West, no longer hold the same positions of power as four hundred years ago. Assuming that the human race continues on into the future, what will our descendants four hundred years from now consider to be the major achievements of our times? One likely candidate would seem to be that, for the first time, humanity figured out how to escape Earth’s gravitational field, and not just with a prayer.

R. L. Mason
Mendocino, California

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