It is not what you have done that matters
But how you intend to go forward
Not what you say
But how you listen
Not what you know
But how you open your mind to newness
Not who you know
But how you open your heart to the stranger
It is not what you do that matters
But who you are
By the light of this flame
Let us grow toward the selves we can be
The selves that believe in and work for love.
Sensation of the Mystical, Albert Einstein
The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience
is the sensation of the mystical.
It is the sower of all true science.
He to whom this emotion is a stranger,
who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe,
is as good as dead.
To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists,
manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,
which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms -
this knowledge, this feeling,
is at the center of true religion.
Two Kinds Of Intelligence, by Rumi
There are two kinds of intelligence: One acquired,
as a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
from books and from what the teacher says,
collecting information from the traditional sciences
as well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
in regard to your competence in retaining
information. You stroll with this intelligence
in and out of fields of knowledge, getting always more
marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet, one
already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox. A freshness
in the center of the chest. This other intelligence
does not turn yellow or stagnate. It’s fluid,
and it doesn’t move from outside to inside
through the conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
from within you, moving out.
Message by Andy Pakula
Where do we come from?
Who are we?
Where are we going?
This the title of a painting by Paul Gauguin. He painted this famous work while living in Tahiti - searching for a simpler life than in his native France.
They are good questions to ask as we begin our new three-month theme. Who are we and who are we committed to becoming. And once can answer this, how will be get there.
The title of the theme is ‘science’, but don’t let that fool you. Don’t run away with bad memories of school days.
This will not be three months of lectures about biology, physics, chemistry, and the like. That’s not why you’re here and it’s not why we’re here.
Instead, it will be about how science and a scientific worldview affect our lives. How can what science reveals about the nature of the universe and the nature of our minds help us to understand how we can live better, more joyful, more purposeful, more meaningful, and more loving lives?
In this sense, scientific discovery can help us understand more about ourselves - and that understanding can guide us to overcome obstacles and find our way toward being the people we want to be and creating the world we want to live in.
Another side of our exploration will be to consider how scientific perspectives interact with other ways of seeing the world. How can a scientific outlook help us and how might it harm us.
This is what we’re going to talk about today
It’s a very personal subject to me in many ways - and the title of today’s Sunday Gathering is meant to make that clear: ‘I don't believe in God, but science is not enough.’
I have been immersed in science and a scientific outlook for most of my life. That is a part of who I am and how I understand the world. For a long time, I did have the sense that science was enough. It seems amazingly naive to me now - how I could have dismissed the things I now hold so dear - community, compassion, justice, universal love...
It took me an embarassingly long time to recognise that what is scientifically proven is not nearly enough to live on. It’s not enough of a foundation to create a meaningful purposeful life for ourselves or to remake the world according to a more just and loving vision.
There is a tension between a reasonable, scientific outlook on life and an outlook that is more open to the mysterious, the unproven, the mystical, and the intuitive. A perspective that we might call spiritual or faithful in opposition to one that is rational and scientific.
Einstein pointed to this tension in the words we heard a moment ago:
“The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience
is the sensation of the mystical.
It is the sower of all true science.”
As one of the most brilliant scientists of modern times, Einstein was making it very clear that science alone is not enough.
I’m also not here to dismiss reason. There is a very strong case to be made for reason and against its opposite.
Yes - excess skepticism is unhealthy but, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti said “If you're too open-minded; your brains will fall out.”
The world is a complicated place. It’s frightening and overwhelming. And we desperately want ways to make sense of it. We long for ways to simplify life and all the choices that face us.
It’s incredibly tempting, therefore, to latch onto ways of thinking and believing that make all of the easier.
Instead of wrestling constantly with the complexity of what to do next, how much simpler it is to believe that someone or some thing or some book has all the right answers and it’s all simple.
It might be a traditional religion. It might be something new or something rediscovered. Anything to manage the overwhelming complexity of life can feel very welcome. Here are a few faithful oversimplifications:
Everything natural is good
Everything happens for a reason
There is a simple way to heal all ills
Technology is all bad
Prayer will fix it
Crystals will fix it
Your angels will fix it
Everyone deserves or attracts the life they have
The ancients or the aboriginal peoples had all the answers
This new diet will make you healthy
Sometimes, these oversimplifications are harmless. Sometimes they actually do some good. Sometimes not.
There are people and companies making lots of money selling products or books that don’t actually help you at all.
If you have money to waste, that’s not so bad. But we know that belief has led to war and torture and oppression. And belief leads to people blaming themselves for their illness. It leads to people failing to turn to medical treatments that could save them - dying while padding the bank account of some charlatan.
This kind of believe can lead to cults and unquestioned gurus and all the terrible consequences that can follow.
If someone tells you they know the truth and have all the answers, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
We might think that a scientific reasonable approach is the opposite of the oversimplifying belief stance. In some ways it is. It is a protective approach because building a wall of skepticism can keep out the frauds and fakes that want your money or worse.
In an important way though, this kind of reason is not the opposite of belief. A purely scientific, reasonable approach is yet another way of simplifying an overwhelmingly complex world. Instead of leaning toward believing too much, it simplifies by believing too little.
If we believe and act upon only what is scientifically proven, the world becomes pretty simple, but it also becomes stark and hardly worth living in.
Is love real? Is love good? Well, haven’t seen the study. Not going there.
How about believing in the worth and dignity of every person? We can’t prove that and we can probably prove the opposite.
Is it true that only love can drive out hate? Where’s the double-blind controlled study?
And it’s not simply that some of what it is good to believe is unprovable, there is also the reality that science can really only examine and test small, manageable chunks of reality. Does the Bacteriophage Lambda’s stability and DNA binding require a tryptophan amino acid at position 26?
That was part of my Ph.D. thesis. Science can answer that question, but it can’t - at least not yet - answer questions like ‘how can we create a more just and loving world?’ Some of the narrow answers science provides can help - they can point us in particular directions. But they don’t make the big, complicated, questions simple as we might hope.
Ultimately, the extremes of scientific reason and gullible open-mindedness are comforting ways of dealing with life’s complexity. Comforting and yet dangerous. One leads to a lack of heart and imagination. The other to susceptibility to abuse and delusion and a confidence in leaders and ideas and practices that do not deserve that confidence.
Ultimately, the world is really complicated. It just is. And no wholesome, life-sustaining, and true path exists to make it simple and comfortable.
Instead, we need to stay in the messy complexity and engage in the struggle to move forward for ourselves and one another.
That path is guided by science and reason and it is warmed and given energy and passion by a willingness to commit to a direction without proof.
What does that path look like?
The other day I met a man who told me he was an orthodox Jew. I recoiled a bit because this suggested to me an unquestioning kind of belief and faith. And then he went on to say that he is an atheist - doesn’t believe anything supernatural.
He prays because he finds it helps. He holds strong to his community because it makes a difference is his and in other lives. He believes in an open-minded way - not simply accepting what he is told but applying his reason in a broader and more flexible way to ways that have been handed down to him.
And this is a path available to all of us. I choose to believe that only love can drive out hate. I choose to believe that every person has worth an dignity.
I know that these notions are untested and probably untestable. And I believe them deliberately and knowingly because I am convinced that these beliefs are the best hope for a better future for all of us.
I know too that the true path is something we travel together - with support and challenge from a community of others prepared to ask and wrestle with the hard questions and to join hands to move forward together - through uncertainty, through complexity, through ambiguity - in the direction of greater love and justice.
The simple answer to life's big questions is usually wrong
And often dangerous
To navigate life’s complexity
We need open minds
And open hearts
And we need each other
Community is the teacher