Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Celebrating the World of Ideas

Half Dome reflected in Merced River
Yosemite National Park by Peter Walton
Truth, Love and Beauty
If you boil everything down, you will find that virtually every significant endeavor of ours since the beginning of human history has been a manifestation of these three things. To truly understand the meaning of life, we must harmonize truth, love, and beauty.
Pursuit of Truth - science and religion

Science and religion may see like polar opposites now, but they are really family. We created religion first to help us cope with forces and events we could not control or understand; things like lightning and death. We gained a sense of control by believing that supernatural beings controlled these things and that praying to them might have some effect. Later when we developed philosophy, we realized that we could actually understand these phenomena if we applied logic, and this gave rise to the sciences.

Here I must pause briefly to qualify my terminology. Even though I say “religion,” you will find that I focus mostly on Christianity for the rest of this article. I do not intentionally single it out, but the reality is that no other religion has battled science quite like Christianity has. This is because science and Christianity grew up together; no other religion can claim such intimate bonds. However, in theory, any religion could experience similar conflicts because science and religion come from different traditions: one emphasizes logic while the other emphasizes intuition/faith. It is this general tension that I’m interested in, not the specific example of Christianity vs. science.  
The interesting thing is that science and religion were not antagonistic at the beginning. The ancient Greeks had no problem worshipping the gods and also doing mathematics and physics on the side. Even the early Catholic church didn’t have the problems we experience today; in fact, during the Dark Ages in Europe, the church preserved a number of ancient Greek scientific manuscripts by recopying them by hand.
So when and why did the acrimony arise? For when, I would say around the time of the Renaissance. As for why, one word: power. By the Renaissance, the Catholic church was the most powerful organization in Europe, and it enjoyed it. When science began to challenge dogma, naturally, the church was not pleased. Copernicus was smart enough to publish his heliocentric theory posthumously. Galileo was not so wise, and paid dearly for it. Yet science is not like other “heresy;” you cannot stop it by killing, imprisoning, or torturing the espousers. Science is different because it’s based on observable facts. No amount of believing will make the earth flat or the center of the universe; you cannot hide from the Truth forever. 

Fast forward to the present; now we have the completely opposite situation. Science dominates the world and has the power to push religion around. Most scientists are only interested in increasing the knowledge of their respective fields, but some have other agendas. Some seek to dispel superstition and pseudo-science, while the more extreme seek nothing less than the total dismantling of religion. For its part, religion does what it has done since the Renaissance - dig in and fight back, hard. What we get then is full blown trench warfare. For example, see my editorial on Creationism vs. Evolution.
This childish tit-for-tat is unbefitting two great traditions of Truth seeking. Science and religion should stop fighting and realize that they are two branches of the same activity - the Pursuit of Truth. Ever since humans became self-aware, we’ve always wondered about the world and our place in it. Science and religion are but tools in this endeavor, and neither is a complete version of the Truth. How can Man, a limited being, piece together the whole Truth using only one branch of human thought? That is hubris and beyond absurd, like someone claiming he can knock out a young Muhammad Ali with one hand tied behind his back. Science gives us insights based on logic, while religious insights are based on faith and intuition. Just as an eagle needs two wings to fly, we need both types of insights to soar to that higher realm where Truth resides.
Love and beauty - arts and literature

Love and beauty not only reside in a higher dimension than the material world, they also exist on a different plane from logic. Philosophy and science have taken stabs at quantifying them, but quantification really doesn’t do them justice. We learn far more about love and beauty from literature and the arts because they express themselves using different tools such as stories, analogies, music, color, movement, and emotions. Science may show us that love is just a chemical reaction in the brain, certain facial proportions are considered beautiful, and that certain notes sound good together (music theory) . These may be the mechanics of love and beauty, but they are not love and beauty themselves. Love is longing and fulfillment, pain and joy. There are many different types of beauty - a baby can be beautiful in its innocence as well as a little old lady with a heart of gold.

To understand the meaning of life, we must harmonize truth, love, and beauty.  None of them are higher or more important than the others. A world without beauty and love is without fulfillment. A world without truth is without substance. Man needs both for a meaningful existence.

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