Monday, October 12, 2009

Where do Facts Live?

It has been a while since I have been able to post. My research group recently received a large grant from the DOE to use fusion machines to study astrophysical jets. Getting things started on that grant along with the other equally fun and challenging science projects my group is involved with has been eating my blogging science/religion/philosophy brain.

(For those interested in the use of fusion machines to study astrophysical phenomena - a subject which relatively new and very cool you can check out this link)

In my continuing research for the new book I have, however, been playing with some ideas that are new to me and I just wanted to share one of these on this fine fall morning (in upstate New York at least).

The hallmark of popular notions of science is the belief that it gives us access to an objective world. For most people science is about facts - Newton's constant G, the mass of an electron, the wavelength of blue light. These facts and their manipulation through theory have given science its power of the world and over our lives.

Traditional religious life also has its "facts" though in this domain the certainties are "derived" from scripture. The hallmark of popular notions (and practice) of religious life is a certainty in these facts of a "spiritual" universe.

The conflict of course comes because of the differing ideas of what a fact is and how it is derived. As a practicing scientist I am much enamoured with the potential to overthrow existing theories (and their interpretation of facts) in ongoing empirically based investigations. This is something that is rarely built into the structure of a religious institution. Still what I am struck by is the ubiquity of the human need for facts, for a supposed solidity in discreet chunks of knowledge. This is not a surprise of course. Our little lives are rounded by a sleep, as Shakespeare said, and the twin darkness's capping our experience make life both weird and scary. Certainty would be great if it were possible. But is it? And what price to we pay for imagining it to be so?

In the that vein I wonder how much we lean on the certainty we think science gives us as a crutch, a replacement, for the certainty which is now more difficult to maintain through traditional religion (this is related to the point Walker Percy makes in Lost in the Cosmos). For me the real radical promise of science is not its certainty but its constant creativity, its demand that we be willing, forever, to upend our most cherished beliefs. There have been many philosophies (and some religions) that emphasized the point that life is flux. Is this a place to ground our groundlessness?

Now clearly there is a world out there pushing back but... Are we demanding more of our predicament when we imagine that we can imagine the horizons away? Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security that we were never meant to have.

Just thinking out loud...

On a separate note I will try and post once a week for the foreseeable future. Hopefully on Mondays mornings. (its good to have a deadline even if its one you invented for yourself.)


  1. Congratulations on your work Adam! I look forward to following it.

    In tying into your last post, I remember reading Buckminster Fuller's response to an audience member who exclaimed how cool it would be to ride in a space ship: He replied something like, "you're already riding one!" referring to earth.

    In another vein that gets at our human predicament and our need for certainty, I'm impressed at how convinced we are that civilization is no longer in the "wild"; seeing ourselves as no longer living in tents has led us into a false sense of permenance while we forget to notice that in the scale of things, the atmosphere itself isn't anything more than a "tent wall": the most secure mountain bunker is just a tear away from the wild ravages of the solar system!

    I think both religion and science have distorted the role of fact in human life. The Latin root for fact is also the basis for our word, manufacture.

    It's a good thing to manufacture a fusion machine from facts, but any attempt to ground our sense of security on an edifice of facts is destined to tumble: anything we manufacture is by definition smaller than we are- even when our constructions tower over us.

    We are contingent beings and the facts we manufacture tend to veil this reality, whether they be scientific or religious. In the end, we are posed with a question by That on which we're contingent: Can we trust in it?

    By not letting ourselves face this question with a full and bold intelligence, we stop short at the facts of life, rather than enter into the fullness of Life itself. And at this stopped place, people like Jesus or Einstein become fetishes in which to focus our attention away from a fact that we're riding a spaceship, not of our own making, and flying a mission in which we weren't consulted!

    A decisive characteristic for the nature of Human Being is that of being thrust into this situation: no other being is.

  2. @Mike - I like the way you say that

    "A decisive characteristic for the nature of Human Being is that of being thrust into this situation: no other being is."

    That is the essence of the predicament or dilemma. We just find ourselves here and we are bounded by horizons. Wishing the problem away by inventing ultimate realities to long for doesn't really solve the problem.

    Facts and manufacturing... hmmm. That is interesting.

  3. A thought experiment toward our use of facts.

    Which of the following descriptions is more factual?

    1. We exist as a result of impersonal random forces, selected to compete with each other for both resources, and status.

    2. We are all children of God endowed with both the ability and the need to create life together in a manner where there is thriving throughout.

    When I ask this question in public, a person will typically choose between 1 or 2 based on thier beginning fact base. But isn't the real fact in this, that as Human Being, we can design our social structures around either descriptive "fact?"

    What is the beginning of Human Being? it seems to be something other than facts.

  4. Adam and Mike, thankyou for the insights. I have linked to you from Andrew Prior

  5. Great discussions. Mike, you said, "What is the beginning of Human Being? It seems to be something other than facts."

    Maybe there is no beginning to Being, and no end. Perhaps there simply IS Being. Facts exist in time, and therefore cannot give rise to Being, which exists in the now, the present moment.

  6. I agree with you Cameron, and as Adam aptly raises questions about the role of facts in the making of our society together, I'd like to push on these ideas a little further.

    First, my thought experiment is not a veiled argument for the existence of God; who or whatever God is, God is. I can't affect the form of this possible reality. What this thought experiment does highlight however, is the role of imagination in the making of society: something we're often blinded to, by our zealous use of reason as a super-natural arbitor of our relationships to each other and reality at large.

    In reality, if any of our qualities should be deemed supernatural, it should be imagination- not reason: Reason is bound by time and history; Imagination enables us to transcend time and history.

    Richard Dawkins, in a recent New York Times article, emphatically and exuberantly claimed that Darwinian Evolution is a complete theory in which life is contained. And yet a three year old transcends Darwinian Evolution on a daily basis.

    Reason has its rightful place; not as a God-like figurehead, but as a capability to be used along side another of our capabilies- to imagine: ballast can't fly or sail, but without it neither can a vessel.

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