Science Feed

Changing minds

Another article, this one in Scientific American, on how people reject facts that conflict with their worldview.  Nothing really new here (I think of William James' 19th century discussions of how people do and don't change their minds).  There are some good pointers on how to discourse with people you disagree with (rules I'm good at following when I'm at my best, though I'm not always at my best).

Again, what puzzles me about all this scientific research on the difficulty of changing ones mind, especially one's worldview, is that I've done precisely that many times.  Why am I, and plenty of other people I know, different?

Here are some examples:

I abandoned biblical inerrancy for historical-critical methods and ultimately even postmodern biblical hermeneutics based upon what I learned in classes and the scholars I read who convinced me to take every step along the way.  I distinctly remember the classroom lecture on the various forms of inerrancy which compelled me to cast aside that position.

I went from being a creationist to an evolutionist as a young adult when I was convinced of the evidence and that I could maintain my religious faith despite the change, which also resulted from becoming acquainted with more liberal forms of Christianity.

During a two week summer course in philosophy of language in a matter of days I went from disagreeing with Noam Chomsky's views to adopting them, based upon the persuasiveness of his arguments.

I distinctly remember the moment, driving in my car and listening to a report on NPR, when I decided that I needed to change my position on capital punishment.  And I had even written a paper giving a defense of it not that many years before.

In 2003-4 I went through a divorce with the Republican Party because of the War in Iraq.  The move wasn't instantaneous, but months of intellectual and emotional wrestling.

That said, I've also always maintained that my core values, ideals, and religious faith have remained steadfast while I have changed theological, philosophical, and political positions.

More on Alternative Possibilities

The systematic evaluation of alternative possibilities is a hallmark of scientific thinking, but it isn’t restricted to science. To arrive at the truth (in science or beyond), we generate multiple hypotheses and methodically evaluate how they fair against reason and empirical observation. We can’t learn without entertaining the possibility that our current beliefs are wrong or incomplete, and we can’t seek diagnostic evidence unless we specify the alternatives. Evaluating alternative possibilities is a basic feature of human thinking—a feature that science has successfully refined.

In a good and brief reflection Tania Lombrozo writes about the scientific history of evaluating alternative possibilities and the method's benefits outside of science.  I really liked her conclusion:

What it does require is willingness to confront uncertainty, and boldly exploring the space of discarded or unformulated alternatives. That’s a kind of bravery that scientists should admire.

Alternative Possibilities

At the NPR Cosmos & Culture blog they continue their discussion of public facts, today in an essay exploring how scientific conclusions and methodologies are constantly changing and why that's a good thing for establishing public facts.  The essayist concludes:

It's a plea for people to embrace the value of considering alternative possibilities, and evaluating those possibilities against the best evidence and arguments at our disposal. And it's a plea for us to do so together, with the kinds of evidence we can verify and share, and the kinds of arguments we can subject to public scrutiny. And if you're not convinced, please consider the alternatives.

Science and Facts

Because the world is messy

We needed a method to determine which statements about the world were ones we could all agree were, indeed, facts of the matter. And the essence of the method we came up with, the one called science, hinged on something absolutely remarkable in the history of humanity.

It all depended on an agreement.

Over time, and as a society, we decided to agree what the rules of the fact-finding method called science should look like. It went something like this: Public facts will be accepted as public facts, if and only if you can show multiple and independent lines of public evidence to support them.

So writes Adam Frank in a very good blog post on how science is the method our modern society agreed upon to deal with the messiness of the world.  He cautions that our use of this method is based merely upon social agreement, and that can be broken.  But, he wonders, is there another method?  For the sake of our democracy, we should be concerned.

Welcome to Mystery

Welcome to Mystery

Psalm 8

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

25 September 2016

    I grew up in a religious tradition that did not value science, except on the rare occasion when it was felt that science in some way confirmed a tenant of conservative biblical interpretation.

    But I was a child and adolescent fascinated by science, and I benefited from an excellent high school chemistry and physics teacher, Ken Harvey. Like most kids, I thought I knew more than I actually did. Harvey was one of those people who revealed a wider world to me. When I'd state an opinion, he might offer a different way of looking at the topic. My many hours in conversation with Harvey both inside and outside the classroom opened my mind to new possibilities. He was one of the most influential persons in my life.

    As I entered college I had compartmentalized my intellect—religion was in one compartment and science in another—I couldn't see how to make them fit together, but I didn't want to cast either one aside.

    In college I encountered the historical-critical method of reading the bible and the rich diversity of theological interpretation. I abandoned the biblical literalism of my childhood and embraced a more open and inclusive faith.

    At the same time I began to study more in-depth the scientific advances of the twentieth century, particularly the developments around quantum mechanics, which seemed to open the door for more connections between science and religion.

    Somewhere along the way I read the book God and the New Physics by the physicist Paul Davies. In the introduction to that book, Davies makes the startling claim that "science offers a surer path to God than religion."

    I ended up reading most of the books Davies had written to that point. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on his concept of God, a concept derived not from theology but from the discoveries of physicists.

    Our culture has a mistaken notion that science and religion are in conflict with one another. There are of course those extreme religious fundamentalists who denounce many scientific conclusions, all the while benefiting from technological advances, of course. And there are the reductive materialist atheists who denounce all religion and with it all sense of mystery and awe.

    But most of us lie somewhere in the middle between these extremes. There are atheistic scientists who believe that science evokes wonder and awe, something akin to spirituality. And there have always been people of religious faith who have embraced scientific advances as revealing God's truths.

    In fact, a good reading of the history of science will reveal all the ways in which modern science was given birth by deeply religious people, like Sir Isaac Newton. What so often appear as conflicts between science and religion were often conflicts between competing value systems or new paradigms with religious people actually lining up on both sides of the conflict.

    In our day we seem to be living through another era in which scientific conclusions are dismissed by a wide segment of our society, and sometimes for religious reasons. I find it strange that in 2016 highlighting the continuities between science and spirituality remains a unique endeavor.

    Last year David Nichols came to me and said, "We need to be having more conversations about the connections between science and spirituality." As he and I talked he expressed more of what he meant. For him science reveals mysteries and wonders and for him exploring those mysteries is a spiritual experience.

    At the time the UCC's pastoral letter on religion and science was released—the letter an excerpt of which Barb read a moment ago--the Rev. Dr. John Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, was interviewed. Listen to this excerpt from the interview:

Science ultimately welcomes more mystery—not less—into the life of faith, Thomas believes. . . . the sight of seeing dividing cells through the aid of a microscope "encourages singing, not arguments" . . .


The outcome of scientific inquiry, therefore, is "a greater sacramental understanding of our life together," Thomas says.

    Thomas then asks an interesting question, "Isn't it exciting that God wants God's creatures to be curious creatures, exploring and imagining?" John Thomas, by the way, will be preaching here next month for Katie Miller's installation service.

    God wants us to be curious, to explore, to imagine. I believe this very sentiment is expressed by the psalmist. We humans are humble creatures, a fragile bit of matter, yet this lump of clay has the most amazing brain. We can reason and imagine, dream and create, make and fashion. This is the divine glory within us.

    Last year I stood in awe of our species as we watched the New Horizons probe beam back to us pictures of Pluto. Here were mountain ranges and icy plains revealed in stunning photographs—beauty that might have laid unrevealed through all eternity. Yet, our brains could design a satellite that traveled 3 billion miles away and take pictures and send them back to us. I've never been so in awe of what it means to be a human and to have our brains. Crowned with glory and honor, indeed.

    But that moment of revelation also inspired a greater sense of wonder. What all else exists in our cosmos unrevealed to us? We have so many more worlds to explore and millions, billions even that we will likely never reach in the entire history of species and our planet. And that, for me, is a mystery of deep spiritual import. For while God has lavished such honor and glory upon us in our obscure little corner of the cosmos, what other wonders has God created?

    The UCC's pastoral letter on science says, "God yearns for us to understand nature more fully and to love it more deeply. God speaks in many ways and through many voices. Today, one of God's many provocative voices is science. We listen and respond, grateful that our theology is enriched by new ideas."

    Let us listen to God speaking to us today. Let us be a people who embrace truth, open to new ideas, welcoming the mysteries.