Saturday, February 6, 2010

My inclination, has been to repel a religious sense of things; it's just felt too "religiony" for my taste. And yet, I have an experience with Life that I'm comfortable putting in a context of God, and I'm drawn intimately to Jesus' historical life. So a lot of my thinking over the last few years, was carried out under this idea: "If we could take Jesus' insights as well as other biblical insights, and remove them from a religious context, would they make even more sense?" For me, I saw "religion-icity" itself as a distorting factor: I recognized the elegance in life that can only emerge from complexity; I saw Jesus embodying that elegance; I saw so much of Christianity focused on maintaining a simplistic world view: Christianity made itself sure of a formula, but lost elegance.

But. It's not that easy. It turns out that we need context. Without some framework of some kind to give order to all the parts we encounter on a daily basis, we feel confused- if not lost.

I'm talking big-context here. We all belong to particular contexts in terms of families or professions or hobbies and the like. Still, we seek a framework that can give over-all context to our daily contexts. Science has fit a bill here. Because human life can be singly expressed in forms of the technological, Science is in a unique position to serve as big-context. Science isn't concerned with subjective experience and neither is the technological sense of life. In a "technological" world, business is something that centers on ideas of efficiency and machine metaphors; the idea that a business could be a place for us to create "soul" and meaningful lives feels new-age and soft to the "technocrat".

I think we're growing weary of life experienced so singly in the techno-consumer context, as well as recognizing that there's more to being human than meets the "scientific eye". There is something vitally important in our subjective experiencing that needs a proper voice again: a voice and place as credible as technology. To fit this bill, we need a concept as big as science and the only one that I can think of is the one of being religious: But we can't use it as is, we have to remodel it; our sense of being religious comes from developments that found their genesis in a whole other cosmology than what we know to exist today.

Over the next few posts, I'd like for us to develop this idea and see if we can find something useful.


  1. Mike,

    I came to your blog through your posts on NPR. I'm very glad I came across the Self Domesticated Apes article, as well as your blog, because I've been working on synthesising the truths of religion and science for the past ~2 years. I grew up in the modern Christian church and ended up studying Ecology and Evolutionary Bio in college.

    To me, the word God is synonymous or nearly so with words such as love, beauty, creation, form, consciousness, etc.

    Some time ago came to the conclusion that our sense of beauty should be our guiding light. It is influenced by, but independent of, both science and religion. It is not expressed or interpreted homogeneously across cultures, but the fundamental sensation of beauty still seems to be universally similar, although I admit I haven't really engaged in an empirical study of this fact.

    Beauty seems to be a word or an idea that unites many facets about human cultural evolution. It advocates appreciation, respect, harmony, creativity, and it lends a sense of comfort to our finite existence in the face eternity.

  2. Welcome Stephen! I look forward to your voice in this blog community!

    You note some important things here, especially a willingness to stretch your vocabulary in considering the nature of God. I'm reminded in the story of Moses first encounter with God, that God was quite reluctant to offer any name. I get this. Names are nouns and nouns can be held in a human's grasp: pretty soon God is a tool; or even a weapon.

    God's first offer of a name to Moses? I am. A verbal emphatic and beyond noun.

    So, I relate to your sense of Beauty. And I would add, that while Beauty isn't very accessible to scientific method, it doesn't mean that we can't engage Beauty intelligently.

  3. Hi Mike,
    "I think we're growing weary of life experienced so singly in the techno-consumer context". Loosely a propos of which, in trying to explain where I am in my Physics research to a friend, I said that "'I don't care what people think', is something we can say but cannot do".

    Families and small groups of people can, to some extent, accept each other without formal commitments, because they are tied historically, for example. Larger groups, I think, require an affirmation of core commitments, which may be well formal. The defense of the formal declaration can vary greatly from place to place.

    The affirmations that are required by churches can be very formal articles of faith, without which one may not even be allowed in the door of the church, or they may be informal enough that one only discovers what they are after years of being there. Churches differ greatly in their attitudes to Christ, to God, to the New and Old Testaments, to the Gospel, to the writings of Paul, to Revelations, ... . They differ in their responses to differing levels of commitment to parts of their commitments. Churches may see some forms of drifting of their commitments as progressive, while another form may be shunned as strongly as a denouncement as blasphemy, ejection from the church, isolation. Despair and regret may be meted out to individuals.

    My commitment centers on the ethical and moral spirit of the Gospels. I take it that I have more obligation to tolerate other people’s choices than I have a right to my own choices.

    In Physics, my position is, as I said over at NPR13.7, that of an outside insider, or perhaps I am an inside outsider. I hew fiercely to some of the core values, to others I may be agnostic, and some of the current core values I passionately believe must change. I believe in what I hew to enough that I fiercely desire to be a Physicist, but I cannot be an inside insider unless I can find a way to make the type of change I think is needed seem progressive to the insiders.

    Thankfully, most Physicists are decent people, preoccupied with their livelihoods of teaching, research, administration, their commitments to their own ideas and families. Most can only be roused to unpleasant behavior by insistent unpleasant behavior from outside. They are people I am happy to talk to, to be with, and to be associated with. The gatekeepers of the shared commitments, the soldiers, are exceptions. Their visibility is of course very great, as they mean it to be, because protection in part means making it look too desperate a venture to storm the fortress.

    With the increased complexity of our varied allegiances, it is difficult to be part of different groups. The commitments required in some churches are surely incompatible with the commitments required in some Physics departments. If one has a passion for a number of things, finding mutually compatible groups in which to exercise all of them fully may be very difficult. It may require moving to a different country to find a place where varied ideas can be pursued together in ways that are more-or-less compatible.

    NPR restricts to 1250, here 4096! I wish I had time to read anthropology, sociology, psychology, and the philosophy and history of them all, because large parts of the above must be dealt with there in detail. My ideas here are surely derived, however wildly, from the zeitgeist that those subjects contribute to. But at this moment Physics needs to change, because surely one can see, as Physicists' blogs decry continually as they clarion for more respect for its past successes, that Physics has been failing to find a new direction for at least 20 years, so that is where I go now.

    Speaking of commitments, we got a dog a year ago. I didn’t want her, but Maisie has become part of our family. A shared commitment. Occasionally my wife threatens to put her on e-bay. It’s a joke, but I had to work hard to make Maisie a commitment of mine, as she now is, the more so for my effort, so it cuts a little.

  4. Peter,

    One of the ideas the etymology of the word religious gets at, is "binding". Perhaps, if our scientific quest entails understanding all the different parts of reality, the religious quest should center on binding parts into a whole. Which to me, seems like context. And after some cursory reading of your work in physics, it sounds like you'll have a lot to contribute to the idea, when I bring it up on the blog. I can hardly wait!