Why Rationalism Works For Me

I sort of dodged a discussion today about the difference between the rational and the spiritual approach to understanding the universe. I didn’t want to engage in the discussion then because it was a derailment of an otherwise interesting topic. Instead I decided to write down some thoughts here.

Firstly, I am a scientist, well a student of science to be precise, but for my argument, the distinction is irrelevant. I am also a secular humanist, so I believe in inclusion of, and respect for, other points of view on the deeply philosophical matters of the universe. That does in no way mean I think these views are beyond criticism. On the contrary. If a position cannot stand criticism, how can it then be of any value in furthering our understanding?

While thinking about the divide between rationality and spirituality further, I started considering quantum mechanics. (I was actually  reading a book on numerical methods for solving complex quantum mechanical systems when my mind wandered back to this subject.)

Imagine drawing a straight line through history following the path of increasing knowledge of our universe. It is of course nothing like a straight line, but for the sake of argument. Spirituality appears to me to be the simplest form of providing explanations when there is very little actual evidence to go from. Sun worshipping makes a lot of sense to me as the sun, mysterious as it was up until relatively recently in history, is after all the provider of energy and thus life. If there is any object worthy worship, it is the sun. Though it is nothing but a massive nuclear fusion reactor.

Now, follow the line to the old Greeks and Archimedes, then to Newton and classical mechanics and on to Einstein and the Theory of Relativity. There is a clear progression building on prior knowledge, starting with superstition and leading us to where we are today. The most fundamental understanding of our universe today is to be found in Quantum Field Theory, the realm of the Higgs, among other things. The world as described by ancient mythology and mysticism doesn’t even come close to the actual reality of how our universe works. That reality is completely beyond human imagination. We had to follow the evidence to get there. Human imagination, when it comes to guessing how the universe works, seems to have been driven by projection and wishful thinking – and it seems that it is very hard for many to let go of this approach to reality. We see it all the time in alternative medicine, in New Age philosophy and in pseudo-sciences like paranormal investigation (PSI etc.) and creationism in fundamentalist Christianity and Islam.

Religions are derived from much the same line of wishful thinking – as well as serious philosophical discourse – but seem to mostly concern themselves with deeper questions about the meaning of our existence and the origin of it; of deities and super-human entities and powers. These are not the realm of science, at least not most of the time, and they carry the distinct sense of being derived from wishful thinking as well as a deep need to understand the universe by anthropomorphising it. That is a very instinctive human way of doing things, and for the little things, convenient enough as well as comforting. But it doesn’t actually give us any answers that we can rely on. The lack of reliability in religion is clearly shown, I think, in the way they historically, and sadly even today, treat dissent. In the extreme cases, with violence of the most vile kind. This does not make religions wrong necessarily, but it is a very pliable tool for power, hate and policing of thought. On the other hand, some of them have gotten close to the right scientific answers by accident, such as parts of Hinduism has, but they are still built on philosophy and speculations, constantly evolving and drifting, but never gaining much solidity or reliability. I find no satisfaction in religion; no comfort and no safety. Nearly all religious explanations are redundant, improvable or impossible.

Science is often claimed by the spiritualists to be cold and ugly. May I suggest that these people actually don’t know much about science then? Because as much as you can find beauty in poetic, spiritual and philosophical ideas, nothing comes close to the actual wonder of the cosmos, the deep beauty of biology or the utter weirdness and counter-intuitiveness of the quantum world. Science does not subtract from the beauty of the world, it adds to it by adding understanding. I’ll end with a quote by one of my favourite scientists, Richard Feynman, who said:

I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.

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