25 May 2005


Via Skeptic News, Salman Rushdie talks about Dylan Evans's ideas on atheism.

Evans's position is fairly close to mine, although I think he's failing rhetorically when he calls religion an "art". I prefer to think of different kinds of truth. Traditionally, these are referred to as "logos" and "mythos", but I call them "historical truth" and "emotional truth".

Science concerns itself with historical truth, but emotional truths may flow from that. "I sing the body electric!" Similarly, historical truths are often the consequences of emotional truths, as Father Damien's caring for the lepers on Molokai resulted from his sense of mission.

But really, the two are irrelevant to one another. When Jesus told the story of the good Samaritan, was he recounting an actual event? Could a time-traveler videotape the man, broken and bleeding by the side of the road, the rule-followers ignoring him because it's the Sabbath, and the wacko Samaritan helping him? I think the answer is that it fundamentally doesn't matter if it really happened or not; the emotional truth is the point of the story, not the historical truth.

And Mary Oliver's sense of place in the world:
Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

flows as easily from a belief in evolution as it does from a belief in "intelligent design".

Turning it around, it's entirely irrelevant whether I believe that the behavior of an electron is under the control of a conscious god, or if I believe the electron to be a god, or if I believe there is no god; in either case I will measure its charge to be the same.

I think that when Augustine said that if scripture conflicted with observation, then scripture had to change (if I remember rightly), he wasn't suggesting actually changing the written words, but rather saying we should revalue them as emotional truth rather than historical truth. The Bible clearly contains both. Fundamentalist Christians are making a category error when they insist that it all be understood as historical truth. But scientists should understand that emotional truths are, in fact, truths, and have great power. As with the power flowing from historical truth, this power can be used for good, as in Father Damien's case, or for evil:
It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

from The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski

Both kinds of truth are human, and valuable, and in fact no one can survive on one alone. The scientist who never has hunches, who feels no need to succeed, no drive to understand, will never do good science; the mystic who thinks that nothing but spirit exists had still better step off the tracks when a train approaches.