COMMENTER A: And while he (meaning me, Brad) is a pretty strong supporter of science he’s always said that he thought there are places that science can’t reach — that goes as far back as Hardcore Zen (the book).
COMMENTER B: Yeah, this is a big part of what bothers me about the new book, and I do realize that it does go all the way back to Hardcore Zen. It has always bothered me, and I have always thought it a consequence of Brads lack of science knowledge or education.
You can learn a lot of things by staring at a wall, and many very important things, I will give you give you this. But there are many, many things that you can NEVER learn by staring at a wall. These also are Very important things.
So when you plainly state that there are things that science cannot reach…
Really shows a lack of science knowledge, and not that you know something that science doesn’t.
Yet I continue to insist that there are things that science cannot reach.
This conversation has continued in the comments section and taken some different turns. But I think that I ought to try and clarify what I mean since the commenters may not be the only ones for whom what I said was confusing.
I think that my saying that and having said recently that science doesn’t yet have an agreed-upon theory for why the universe exists at all (it started with the Big Bang, but why did the Big Bang happen? Where did the stuff come from?) makes people think that when I say there are things science cannot reach I must be referring to stuff like that. Like I’m one of those guys who says that since science can’t explain absolutely everything then we ought to believe in God. I’m not. I think those people are being stupid.
Some readers seem to assume I mean that science will never explain the existence of the universe. But I think it’s highly probable that there will one day be a scientific explanation for why the physical universe exists that will be backed up by enough observation and evidence that most scientists will agree with it. I imagine that in order for that to happen science may have to change a lot and may have to incorporate aspects of what we now call “mysticism.” But I could be wrong. Maybe there a nice clean nuts and bolts explanation that won’t sound at all mystical.
In any case, that’s not what I’m talking about when I say there are things that science cannot reach. What I mean is that science is, by necessity, limited in the types of things it can inquire into.
For example, what is love?
Science may be able to explain love in terms of heart rate, endorphin levels, galvanic responses, changes in blood pressure, changes in activity in specific regions of the brain, and so forth. But would that tell you what love is?
Science can’t tell us what love is because that’s not what science does. I find some of the recent theories about the activities of oxytocin fascinating. If you’re on a hot date, it can be informative to know that changes in oxytocin levels may be affecting your cognitive processes. But that still doesn’t tell you what love is.
I remember when I first grokked this concept. Someone was challenging Nishijima Roshi when he said something similar about the limitations of science. I can’t remember his complete response but I do remember four words of it and those four words were, “a girl is crying.” I can still hear how he said those words, his accent, his idiosyncratic intonation when speaking English, the image that came to my mind upon hearing those words. It was a big deal to me. Funny, huh?
But I too was one of those people who very strongly objected to the notion of there being any gaps in the world of scientific inquiry. I knew there were things science hadn’t explained yet. But I also believed that given enough time and enough research there was nothing science couldn’t one day explain.
Now I don’t think so.
And if I may be so bold, I would include God among those things that science won’t ever really get.
Again, God as an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing is easy to refute. I don’t posit God as an explanation for the Big Bang or any of that nonsense.
But there’s another way of understand this word “God.” God is like love. It’s something we experience that can’t be explained away. Or even when it can be explained, the explanations really don’t finalize anything for anyone.
Scientific knowledge is objective knowledge. It is the knowledge of things as objects. But God (or whatever you want to call it) can never be an object. Yet God is also not totally subjective either. The separation of subject and object break down at some point and that is the point that I am provisionally calling “God.”
Here is what the same commenter said to me by email:
You mentioned in your comment that you “believe” in science.
Science is not something that you believe in. It is something that you do. It is a process. It is a process that is so basic and fundamental, that we do it all the time. And I’m not talking about using the technologies that have been developed through science. I’m talking about the basic scientific process. No one could live without it. There is nothing to “believe” in.
If you hold that the process does not work for something. That would be a position to hold. But there is nothing about “belief”.
But I would also suggest that a certain degree of faith or belief is required in science. I’m going to paraphrase Karen Armstrong’s A Case for God here. The words “faith” and “belief” used to indicate something more like trust or commitment. Jesus wasn’t asking anyone to believe that the theories he proposed were true in the way we use the word “believe” these days. He was asking them to trust him and to commit to his teachings.
In the 17th century scientists began using the word “belief” to mean “intellectual ascent to a hypothetical proposition.” For example, if you didn’t actually do the calculations Copernicus did you could say you nonetheless believed them to be correct based on your faith in Copernicus being a competent scientist and in others who may have duplicated his calculations.
I myself believe in general relativity 1) because I trust that Einstein did the math and that others have replicated his equations even though I can’t understand them any more than Richard Dawkins understands the Holy Trinity and 2) because I’m typing this on a computer that works, in part, because Einstein got it right.
But often I don’t have something like #2 above to go on, in which case it’s just faith alone. Because I’m hopeless at math and all I can do is trust people who are better at it. I therefore believe in science in almost the same way as the folks who built the Creation Museum in Kentucky believe in the Bible. I take science as authoritative. I would argue that there is far more hard evidence for my belief in science than their belief in the Bible (see my example above of my computer and add in high rise buildings, automobiles, jet planes, Western medicine and a zillion other pieces of very solid evidence I interact with all the time). But in the end, internally the process is much the same. Someone I trust says something and I take it on faith that it’s true.
I would further add that my belief in zazen is not completely unscientific. For 2500 years or more, thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions) of human beings have done a controlled experiment with their own bodies and minds and have reported very similar results. These results tend to be phrased, much like scientific results, in language that only those who have done the experiment themselves can comprehend. However, many of these experimenters have produced literature aimed at lay people to explain in ordinary language what they experienced. Like scientists, they’ve had to rely on metaphorical descriptions to get their point across. Also, like scientists, they are usually quick to caution us that these metaphors should not be taken literally.
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You can literally donate to the upkeep of this blog if you believe in it!