Tuesday, June 08, 2004


Over the years, I’ve been thinking about the difficult “big” questions which confront us. The list is familiar to everybody: “What is the universe and how did it come to be?” “Who are we and how do we fit in?” Hardest of all are the “Why” questions about life and the world. Given how busy we all are, it is natural that we don’t have a lot of time to worry about these questions. On the other hand it is frustrating that we know so little about the mysteries underlying our lives. Through some reading and thinking I have done, I’ve had some philosophical ideas which I am convinced meaningfully increase our grasp on reality. This is my attempt to summarize and share these through time. As a caveat, please note that this is an amateur effort. My lack of training in any relevant subject is a big handicap. What’s been great for me is that so many talented philosophers and scientists have undertaken to write books and articles accessible to a general audience. Still, the thrust of many of my ideas dont' seem to have penetrated into the general public.

Here’s the problem: in our culture, the two approaches we take to these big fundamental questions couldn’t be more different. On the one hand, we have science, which most of us look to for ever-increasing insight into the nature of reality. On the other hand, we have the variety of religious beliefs which provide so many people a foundation for understanding the mysteries of being. To state the obvious: science and religion represent two non-overlapping visions of reality that historically have been unable to connect with each other. I find this very unsatisfying.

The responses of people to this state of affairs might be very roughly categorized into 3 types. The first response would be a total or near total confidence that while science may not answer all the questions today, eventually it will. A second response would respect the effectiveness of science but retain a feeling that the scientific method is (and will continue to be) incapable of answering some of the most fundamental questions. A third response would be to reject or devalue science and have a basically non-scientific worldview based on one’s religion. I suspect a great deal of people reside in group number 2, and this leads them to straddle the divide by embracing science while still looking elsewhere for ultimate truths.

For the last several hundred years in western culture, science has been in the ascendancy. The increasing confidence in science is of course well founded in the great advances in our understanding of the natural world. As I will sometimes argue, however, the great successes of modern science have been accompanied by lack of progress in addressing some long-standing philosophical problems. Figuring out why this is so gives us a good roadmap toward gaining in our understanding of reality.

I don’t intend to discuss religion or religious ideas here. For billions of people, religion and personal faith will continue to be the anchor for understanding the world and for providing a template for living. I do have some ideas which point to some potential bridges between the scientific perspective and religious thought. However, I’ll leave to the reader to draw any connections to specific beliefs. I should also note that many people have been become interested in non-traditional approaches to spirituality. The manifestation of “New Age” thinking in particular may stem in part from unhappiness with the dichotomy between traditional religion and science. I have read a couple of books that would be classified as New Age. The problem I see with New Age ideas (which I try to avoid) is that the thinking is too fuzzy to be convincing to the skeptical, scientific-minded individual.

To digress a moment: another topic I won’t generally discuss here (and can’t do justice to anyway) is the role of art in understanding reality. Some might argue that the divide between art and science is as important a dichotomy as that between religion and science. My feeling on this is that great art offers oblique glimpses of a reality beyond our normal conception, but that it is religion and science which purport to directly answer fundamental questions.

Amidst the divide between science and religion, philosophy as an academic subject appears to have had less impact on the typical person’s thinking about reality. Philosophers have not had a large influence outside their professional community (philosophy has this in common with some other university-level humanities subjects). This is in contrast to past centuries, when thinkers who had a great impact on western culture often straddled what are now the hard divisions between the natural sciences and philosophy (and even theology). There are a number of possible explanations of this, but part of the story may be that science seemed to be doing quite well on its own, while at the same time much of modern philosophy wasn’t easy for either scientists or members of the general public to relate to.

Today, however, I think ideas from philosophers or best categorized as “philosophical” can help. The goal of these ideas is to increase our understanding of reality in a way that scientists will respect and perhaps make use of. At the same time, the ideas may point to common ground with religious thought that had not been clear before. Finally, I believe all of us can benefit from a better grasp of reality as a result of these ideas being brought forth, developed and discussed.

So, that’s the goal. The next several postings will discuss some of these ideas, and then I plan to add more through time. As a launching point and touchstone for much of my thinking, the next post will begin by taking on the mystery of consciousness.

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