Sunday, December 05, 2010

Science and its Primitive Certainties

In my last post I wrote that, like Christianity before it, Science provides the collective with simple certainties, and therein lies its power. I’d never thought of that before, and it has quite struck me since.

Of course, if you look into Science, you realise its picture of reality is not simple at all. Quantum Mechanics, for example, where there is only probability and never certainty. 11 dimensional M theory . Boltzmann Brains.

But if you don’t think too much about all that – or if, like Einstein and quantum theory, you refute it – then you can have the comfortable feeling of certainty about how the universe works that science seems to provide.

Christianity at its simplest tells us that an omniscient God created the universe, and if we are good he will let us into heaven after we die. For centuries that was simple and certain.

Now Science at its simplest says that we are composed of inert matter and after we die that is it. Not very appealing, perhaps, but it is simple and certain. On the upside, it tells us that we were created by evolution and flatters us (like Christianity before it) by putting humans at the top of the evolutionary tree. The success of Science also allows us to feel collectively god-like. Science also holds out the promise of eventually explaining everything (omniscience) and even finding a cure for old age and death.

These simple certainties have a powerful effect on us emotionally, even if intellectually we are more sophisticated. Look at Nazi Germany. There were plenty of ‘intellectuals’ who were swayed by the emotional power of the Nazi message. It’s a collective thing. You are influenced osmotically. Even if your understanding of Science extends to the subtleties of quantum theory, that can be largely intellectual, while emotionally you remain reassured by the simple and omniscient certainties that Science holds out. And one is further reassured by the fact that so many other people feel the same way. Nothing needs to be said, it is a sort of primitive and unconscious tribal pact.

That is why homeopaths, acupuncturists etc get given a hard time by the conventional medical authorities: they are a threat to the tribal certainties that Science provides. They need to be ridiculed and cast out so the rest of us can continue to feel OK.

I think this is just the way things work when you have large collectives of people. If you are an astrologer or a homeopath, then you probably don’t need quite so much the certainties that the collective provides. (Note I say not quite so much: there are plenty of astrologers, healers etc who seek security in their own alternative canon.) If it wasn’t science vs astrology and homeopathy, it would be something else that put you on the margins, that made the individual way you see and do things a threat to the collective certainties. So there’s no point being surprised by it or wanting it to be different. It’s always been that way.

It’s paradoxical that Science can be so sophisticated and creative and complex, and yet at the same time kept in place by primitive needs. You also see this phenomenon in the resistance with which scientific progress can be met from other scientists.

The real evolution is not human technological prowess, which flatters us into believing we are gods. The real evolution is the ability on an emotional level, to whatever extent, to dwell outside the collective certainties and not need to feel part of the tribe in that sort of way. That’s when life gets interesting.

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Anonymous said...

once again, you've encapsulated a big
concept in a concise and accessible
way... thank you so much, DR ;)


Anonymous said...

"The real evolution is the ability on an emotional level, to whatever extent, to dwell outside the collective certainties and not need to feel part of the tribe in that sort of way. That’s when life gets interesting."

It most certainly does!

Anonymous said...

very great i like the last part you explain, i feel the same way lately, that if we free ourself from the collective urgins n be transparent to its plays yet participate, we get a richer life n access more inner freedom that is outside the bounds of all isms maybe even time n space...

Anonymous said...

The End of Discovery: Are we approaching the boundaries of the knowable?
This is a book by Prof. Russell Stanard who disagrees with Stephen Hawking's assertion that physicists (scientists) can and ultimately will formulate a theory of everything. Guardian Science Weekly had an interview with Stannard where he makes this case very persuavively ( It's in the second part of this programme but should be grist to your mill Dharma Uci.

Take care,
Paul (Jones)

Barry Goddard said...

Thanks for the link. It emerges at the end that Stanard believes in God, and I think that means he relies too much on assertion of his case, rather than making his case.