February 8, 2017

The Pendulum of Extremes:
Balancing the Material & the Spiritual

Preface: This was originally written for a theological magazine to address a specific topic of their choosing. It hits a topic that is near and dear to me, which is the mean between extremes, the middle way, the via media, or whatever you like to call it—that which keeps us from falling into the trap of dangerous and mind-closing extremes. Nonetheless, the truth is that the magazine apparently didn't like it. So, here it is, otherwise unpublished and altogether forgotten.

“The problem is to get [people] to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, Science, as the only begetter of truth.”
-Richard Lewontin, Billions and Billions of Demons (1997)

Richard Lewontin made this brazened claim in his commentary on Carl Sagan’s book on skepticism and scientific thinking, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Nearly twenty years later, that splash still causes ripples in the waters of both science and theology alike, bolstering atheists and flustering the religious. This statement points to a much larger problem though--the problem of extremism. But, in making this controversial remark, did Lewontin really jump off a materialist springboard that Sagan built, or did he dive headfirst from his own extremist platform? Shining Sagan’s own skeptical spotlight on the issue reveals not only the latter to be true, but exposes a gleaming example of the very same zeal that led Lewontin, and other material extremists, to that conviction in the first place.

Speaking of conviction, we should start by taking a look at Sagan’s in order to trace this controversial trail of breadcrumbs back to its source to better understand it and mediate the issue at large with a clear perspective. Then, in order to expose the heart of the problem, we will briefly look at the origin and implications of Lewontin’s comment. By the way, not to spoil the ending but, the purpose of this essay is not to plead a case for materialism or spiritualism, since both are just opposites swings of the same pendulum. The perpetrator in question is not any one belief, but methodology.

Both science and theology are as readily employed in the service of evil as of good.
Sagan’s book, one of his last publications before his death, seems to accurately portray his stance on material science versus spiritualism (i.e., non-empirical concepts like religion, superstition, pseudoscience, etc.). This stance, as he put it himself, was that of skeptical agnosticism. To avoid getting tangled in writing yet another commentary on his book, suffice it to summarize Sagan’s argument as one that, through anecdotal stories and recounting of historical events, rightfully lays out the dirty laundry of various confirmed charlatans (e.g., channellers, faith healers, etc.), tabloid mania (e.g., UFO’s, cryptids, etc.), and unjust persecutions in the name of religion (e.g., witch trials and inquisitions), all to the purpose of advocating critical thinking. In all fairness, while he does toss around heavy-handed statements saying, “Religions are often the state-protected nurseries of pseudoscience…” and, “Some portion of the decision-making that influences the future of our civilization is plainly in the hands of charlatans”, he does also keep some balance with his stance of skeptical science by admitting its shortcomings, “Scientists, being primates, and thus given to dominance hierarchies, of course do not always follow this commandment [to mistrust arguments from authority alone]”, as well as its moral ambiguity, as science is “as readily employed in the service of evil as of good.”

All in all, Sagan used his book as an opportunity, not to crush mysticism or religion, but to fortify a skeptical foundation of critical thinking and the scientific method in what he calls “a personal statement, reflecting [his] lifelong love affair with science.” An earnest, agenda-free reading highlights his approach to critical thinking as a constructive exhortation: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, thereby merely placing the burden of proof on the claimant of any claim (scientific, religious, or otherwise), but still assuring that, “Religious doctrine that is insulated from disproof has little reason to worry about the advance of science.” While he himself prefers “the hard truth [rather] than the comforting fantasy” he also cautions materialists: “In a life short and uncertain… temper criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped.” Perhaps it was his age at the time or perhaps his broad view of the goings on of the world at large, but Sagan did make one of the most impressively mitigative statements in this work, which some commentators seem to miss: “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.”

To discover that the Universe is billions of years old improves our appreciation of its grandeur.
Sagan also provides a compelling argument for the scientific wonderment of existence: “To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion and not 6 to 12 thousand years old improves our appreciation of its sweep and grandeur; to entertain the notion that we are … not some breath of divinity...” But, one could be likewise compelled to wonder if (or argue that) this eliminates our appreciation of spiritual possibilities. Not necessarily, though.

If we are thoughtful about religion and spirituality, then these majestic scientific truths can serve to expand our appreciation of both the natural world and its possible divine first causes (whatever they may be). What awe could be inspired by, not simple word-for-word prescriptions of creationism or animism but, the world being so old, unimaginably so within our limited perspective of time, that the divine cause (or causes) has been at work the whole time with infinitudes of equally unimaginable complexities of astronomical, geological, and biological activities that all led to the “creation” or “cosmos” we see today. This is not to plead a case for intelligent design, but simply a more a posteriori reflection on the possibilities of spirituality through the lens of the science we now have, that Sagan aptly admits from which “there is no way back... we are stuck with science.” We cannot unknow what has been known, but that does not mean that we should spitefully eschew the spiritual components of the yet unknown in lieu of strict materialism of the known, as though the core of spirituality had altogether intentionally misled us to some insidious end.

Now, to push the pendulum from its curious mid-way bobble into a violent swing to the left. Upon reading Lewontin’s commentary on Sagan’s book, it quickly becomes obvious that the statement in question was the agenda of the piece all along. He leads the essay with a brief retelling of a sour encounter that he and Sagan had some decades previous during a debate over creationism versus evolution at a religious college, which subsequently led the two scientists out the back door from fundamentalist disapproval. Lewontin follows through the essay with his counter attack against belligerence, modestly nodding to Sagan’s “program” to educate an ignorant world by presenting them natural science facts, then charges ahead with his own assault. His battle plan begins with an even more heavy-handed blast of claims about how “people believe a lot of nonsense” that is just a “consequence of a wrong way of thinking” and that the solution is that to “put a correct view of the universe into people’s heads we must first get an incorrect view out.”

It is at this early stage of the reading that it is painfully obvious that Sagan’s program is left behind and Lewontin’s war has begun between materialism and all of spiritualism as a whole. His interpretation of the problem is that the majority lacks “the intellectual apparatus needed to explain manifest reality in material terms…” But, such an extremist interpretation unfairly stereotypes the general public as hopelessly ignorant, as well as carrying an implication that anyone of spiritual thought is a conspirator to the propagation of oppressively cultish thinking. Sure, the argument is selectively valid, but on a large scale application (especially with Sagan’s advice in mine) it rings a familiar tone of the devil quoting scripture, perhaps saying something like, “he who is not with me is against me” (Matt 12:30). More is said on Sagan’s book directly, such as exhorting readers to “cease whoring after false gods and to accept the scientific method as the unique pathway to a correct understanding of the natural world.” But, Sagan’s exhortation is actually to healthy skepticism by not merely submitting to ideas without questioning; not to abandon the “gods” of the immaterial in favor of the “gods” of known science alone.

We should distinguish between religion, pseudoscience, and superstition.
If we are to be more discerning about spiritual prescriptions of reality, we would be urged to a demarcation between religion, pseudoscience, and superstition, as well as possible validity of each. While the three can, and often do, overlap, they do not necessarily do so and are perhaps far better off for the individual when kept compartmentalized into their own confines, lest witch hunts begin, crusades ensue, or an all-out attack on all religion be launched by the spurned atheist opponents. Since the origins of much of the argument lie in creationism, I feel some need to remind the reader that not all religions subscribe to stark creationism, or solo scriptura views of such. So, where does creationism fall? Is it religion, pseudoscience, or superstition… or maybe just an embellishing option or detail? Thus, we find ourselves already mired in quibbling over terminology alone, having lost our way in the forest while bickering about the trees.

Look back at the big picture, then. Creationism and science should not be debated on level ground any more than the health value of milkshakes and celery juice should be debated. No one orders a milkshake for its health value (at least, I would hope not) and few people drink celery juice for its flavor. The statistical truth is, regardless of one’s beliefs, when measured on purely empirical grounds, stark creationism will always lose the battle. But, creationism is a theological concept, not a scientific one and, as such, should be measured by theological rules, with scientific variables weighed in as environmental constants.

These debates typically wage on with little productive progress to society at large, not because of the topics at hand, nor their strength, nor even the participants, but because of the debates themselves. Science is not theology and theology is not science. If it must be taught, creationism (for example) should not, for its own benefit and conceptual integrity, be taught outside of a religious environment without a trained specialist on its theological tenets any more than chemistry should be taught outside of a laboratory environment without a chemist to teach and supervise all mixtures and reactions. We seldom hear about a debate between the scientific division of neurology and the theological division of Christology. Why? Because they are not topics of equal relevance or comparable opposition.

Should we “take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… because we have a prior commitment to materialism” as Lewontin claims? If so, then likewise “we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.” Such a commitment certainly lacks the spirit of Sagan’s view of science, as well as the investigative convictions of productive science in general. This general attitude (“general attitude” only, mind you) strikes a similar chord as some religious fundamentalists who are so committed to literal readings of scripture that they must claim increasingly complex arguments to refute the existence of dinosaurs.

Many of today’s scientific discoveries began life as spiritualism or natural philosophy.
Since scientific and theological relevance are now on the chopping block, we should ask the philosopher to help shed light on the matter. Many of today’s scientific discoveries started life in antiquity as spiritualism or natural philosophy of one kind or another (e.g. Alchemy and Atomism). Although plenty of ancient spiritual ideas would be discovered untrue, there are many that have been discovered to be true. Is this some kind of scientific intuition, divine revelation, or perhaps a broken clock being right twice a day? Or, perhaps Albert Einstein was right when he said, “It is the theory which decides what can be observed.”

Aristotle is hailed to this day as one of the greatest philosophical thinkers of antiquity, but there were many things he was intuitively and speculatively wrong about, mostly because he just did not have the “scopes” (microscopes, telescopes, oscilloscopes, etc.) to examine his ideas for empirical accuracy. Was he later denounced as a petty charlatan or flighty dreamer? His ideas, many of which happened to be accurate due to his great ability to analyze concepts of logic and the telos of things, are taught in the finest schools and integrated into almost every scientific discipline we have. Meanwhile, his inaccuracies (e.g., theories of biological reproduction, stratification of human intellect, and geocentricity) are more often glossed over with an understanding that he just did not have the scopes to know any better.

To steer the task at hand more properly back to mitigating extremism, I would risk a philosophical quote from the Catholic Catechism (365): “Neither the spiritualism that despises the reality of the body nor the materialism that considers the spirit a mere manifestation of the material do justice to the complex nature, to the totality or to the unity of the human being.”

Just as the brilliant Dr. Lewontin so astutely proclaimed that “our explanations of material phenomena exclude any role for supernatural demons, witches, and spirits of every kind...” the bigwigs of the Second Vatican Council also stated with a noble and perhaps uncharacteristically worldly humility in Gaudium et spes (III.36) that “Man must respect [all things] as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God.”

Avoid the volatile mixture of weighing the mystical on material scales.
While it is true of science that the activities of the supernatural should be excluded when studying the natural, it is also true of academic theology to follow the same path. The theologian should not dauntingly seek to explain the comings and goings of the material world through spiritual concepts, but rather to thoughtfully explain spiritual concepts to the material world amidst its comings and goings. As well, even (perhaps especially) at the non-academic levels, people should avoid the volatile mixture of weighing the mystical on material scales, lest more enemies be made, bridges burned, and more genuine learning be tossed by the wayside through our instinctive primate need for dominance or our sinful pride (depending on your point of view).

The problem at hand in such debates, where apples are thrown by one side and oranges by another, is that we should heed the advice of those many wise minds who came before us and stay our hands at those who we might at first perceive to be the enemy, lest the ends come to justify the means and we become the enemy ourselves. As I began with a quote of debate, I end with a quote to respond and hopefully help bring scientists and theologians alike back down to earth from the clouds of zeal:

“Wisdom lies in understanding our limitations.”
-Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1995)