Tuesday, May 13, 2008

You Can Have Your Cake . . .

Yes, you can have your cake and eat it too. First, let me say this without appearing immodest. I am grounded, well grounded, in the sciences. To me, evolution is a fact of life. As quick as one can say 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' I can summarize my thinking about man's level of understanding about his station in the universe. That magnificent phrase captures the essence of evolution in that it (simply) describes the known fact that every living human being follows a developmental path similar to, if not identical, to every other mammal. In other words, we are not unique in terms of how we got here. The 'how' and 'why' we are here is because we are simply animals. Science teaches us this and for some, it is a bitter pill to swallow. Most of the misunderstanding appears to come about from the failure to appreciate the meaning of the word 'theory' as it is used in science as opposed to its common meaning. Wikipedia describes the difference:

"In science a theory is a testable model of the manner of interaction of a set of natural phenomena, capable of predicting future occurrences or observations of the same kind, and capable of being tested through experiment or otherwise verified through empirical observation. It follows from this that for scientists "theory" and "fact" do not necessarily stand in opposition. For example, it is a fact that an apple dropped on earth has been observed to fall towards the center of the planet, and the theories commonly used to describe and explain this behavior are Newton's theory of universal gravitation (see also gravitation), and the theory of general relativity.

"In common usage, the word theory is often used to signify a conjecture, an opinion, or a speculation. In this usage, a theory is not necessarily based on facts; in other words, it is not required to be consistent with true descriptions of reality. This usage of theory leads to the common incorrect statements. True descriptions of reality are more reflectively understood as statements which would be true independently of what people think about them."

The rubber hits the road (sorry about all the cliches this morning) when certain religious beliefs cross paths with scientific truisms. Science tells us that we are born and we die according to a genetic code that mostly resembles apes and other (ahem) lower forms of life including rats, pigs, dogs, cats, horses, etc. While on this planet we are subject to the same forces of altered life that dictate our individual fates. Like a dog or a cat, if we get hit by a car we die. The cells in our body react to noxious stimuli to result in infection, malignancy or worse according to the same principles seen and studied in lower mammals. There are many loving people throughout the world and the United States who resist the notion that we are animals subject to the same scientific principles as every other genus and species on this planet. Early in life, they have been imbued with religious knowledge that is at odds with what is known from science. The first chapter of the Bible teaches that man and woman were created by God. The widespread inability or unwillingness to accept the reality that our common ancestor walked a forest somewhere in northern Africa has created the tension that now permeates religious belief and thought. Scientists who spout such nonsense are labeled 'secularists' and it becomes impossible for people on both sides of this illusory schism to avoid name calling.

I respectfully suggest that people of religious persuasions who find it difficult to accept evolution and the other disparities between so-designated religious beliefs and science need to develop an understanding about the very nature of science about which little is heard. Science is humble. The required humility of science is, to me, a required spiritual belief in the orderliness of the universe. The great men of the various religions, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, shared a common humility in their teachings which exactly replicates the principle of science. In science, a possible explanation for an observed phenomenon is made and then scientists immediately set out to disprove the explanation. The scientific method adheres to the following steps:
Define the question
Gather information and resources (observe)
Form hypothesis
Perform experiment and collect data
Analyze data
Interpret data and draw conclusions that serve as a starting point for new hypothesis
Publish results
Retest (frequently done by other scientists)

The notion of forming a potential belief (hypothesis) about something that has been observed in nature and then setting out to disprove it strikes me as exactly the individual mind set one needs to reduce the chaos of life into a happy organized life. It is my opinion that there is a divine sense of order to the universe and my spiritual beliefs require me to ascertain the nature of that order and live my life according to its dictates.

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