Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting Lost – Letting Go of Certainty

This entry is far from original. Others have made use of a similar illustration; this is my iteration. It is a true story.

I am ten, and it is the middle of July boy's camp in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. In my relentless pursuit of all things amphibian and reptilian, my curiosity veers me away from Blair Lake and into a sphagnum moss covered old lake bed. I immediately notice a number of elusive wood frogs that jump away from me. They distract me as I enter further into a forest of ten-foot tall tamarack pines situated in deep sphagnum moss. One hundred feet into this unique bog forest ecosystem, I turn around to look back at where I came from. I am alarmed. Every direction I turn looks identical to the next—a forest of lichen covered, ten-foot tall tamarack pines shading a forest floor of sphagnum moss peppered with green ferns.

Entoloma Mushroom in Sphagnum Moss

Though surrounded in an environment rich with the raw ingredients for imagination with its Carboniferous-looking mosses and ferns, I am overtaken with anxiety. With each step the sphagnum moss completely engulfs my foot and leg up to my knee only to return to form moments after my foot exits; hence, I leave no footprints. The thought takes hold of my mind that I might be wandering in the wrong direction, entering into the hundreds of miles of state forest surrounding the camp. My heart races with the thought that I might be spending the night alone in the woods—deep in a bog forest with a thick sun-blocking canopy. I walk back the direction I think I came from.

Two minutes later, nothing has changed. Though I was sure I had turned back the way I started, every direction I look is the same. Ahead of me I hear something. It is the sound of a vehicle driving over a gravel road—now I have a bearing. Three minutes later I see the terrain changing, and I emerge onto a familiar gravel road. A vehicle passes, and I try to look calm and together though I am overtaken by relief. Turning to look back and down the slope into the forest I left, I realize how amazingly near I was to the road the entire time. In fact, I realize that the forest was interrupted by roads on at least three sides and Blair Lake on the other—there was little chance of me being lost there for long. The next day I return to the same area to catch wood frogs, and in the years to come I returned there nearly every summer.

I have discovered that life is of this nature. To learn, to really know, I must forgo knowing and certainty—I must be willing to allow myself to get lost and then to find myself. Human learning is of this nature. The scientific advancement of human knowledge could not and did not occur until the dogmatic certainties of previous generations (e.g., the Earth is the center of the solar system, Noah's Flood created fossils, the Earth is 6000 years old, etc.) were laid aside. Once the "known" is forsaken, learning can happen. Once one allows the anxieties of being lost and lost certainties to experience, then she is ready to learn.

Dogmatic certitudes will be the death of humanity. Scientific epistemologies with its always contingent approach to the world will be our species' salvation. Let go of your dogmatic certainties. Let go of what you know with absolute confidence. Embrace the contingency of what you know. Get Lost.


Andrew T. said...

Hello Peter,

Good post. Though, unfettered science is not mankind's salvation. Humans have a spiritual dimension and a worldview is not complete if it disregards their need to connect to God.

Fizlowski said...

What is meant by "unfettered science" exactly? The term conjures up images of Frankenstein's monster escaping the laboratory, or a genetically engineered velociraptor jumping it's paddock fence. These caricatures, though well-meaning, are a little unfair, I think.

Science might not be conducive to "spirituality" in any traditional sense, but maybe the traditional sense has less value than we thought. Science, by giving us insight into the nature of things, can certainly foster a sense of awe and reverence for the universe and give us perspective about our moral nature and our place in the world. Does spirituality need to do any more than this?

Scriptulicious said...

Hello Andrew & Fizziraptor,

Thank you both for the feedback.

With Andrew, I am wary of scientism—the positivistic notion that science is the only way to know or the only true epistemology. However, science is indeed the best way of knowing (the best epistemology) that humanity has contrived to date because its conclusions are always contingent and always open to revision. Likewise, the scientific method is the only way of knowing that works through global-level consensus. Other epistemologies are reliant on local truth systems (however large their numbers of adherents may now be) that work through dogmatics and unverifiable revelatory events.

I sometimes take issue with books on atheism in the science section of book stores. However much science might be found in a book arguing atheism, positivistic scientism [as a means to atheism] is a philosophical position with philosophical merits. Such books would likely fare better in the philosophy sections….in some or many cases. I might need to revise this last sentence.

I am quite fond of Eric’s last paragraph. Human spirituality does not need to be superstitious to be authentic. Humanism, agnosticism, non-theism, and atheism all offer “spiritual” paths that do not invoke the presence of invisible numens and supernatural forces. As such, I consider myself a spiritual person who humanistically appropriates traditional religious symbols and rituals as a venue for self-transcendence. For example, I attend a liberal church with heavy Unitarian Universalist leanings that meets in a very traditionally Romanesque-Gothic building. Entering into the sanctuary I feel compelled to quietude, entrainment, inscape, and contemplation. I find in our very material, very human past ample inspiration and room for thought both looking back through the annals of cultural development and looking back to our mammalian and primate roots. With Eric does spirituality need any more than a feeling of awe regarding our place in the world along with room for moral contemplation? I know that some will misunderstand and misuse this last comment (not Andrew).

Andrew T. said...

Hello Peter,

I believe in an afterlife and the supernatural. I don't think of this as being superstitious, even though there is no hard scientific proof (only a great deal of compelling circumstantial evidence) to support my belief.

Peter said...

Hello Andrew,

I am undecided on this. Dennett, for frame of reference, separates between superstition and religion. Dawkins tends to conflate the two. In Dennett’s reasoning, superstition relates to impersonal, immaterial, supernatural laws or magic that can be appropriated by means of formulaic behavior. Dennett then posits that religion is different in that it adds a personal component—personal deities or a personal God—that an arbitrarily decided to confer or withhold benefits. Hence, in superstitious systems, the shaman is unable to attribute the failure of ritual to the personality of a deity or deities; however, in a religion the absence of rain, for example, can be attributed to the displeasure of the deity even if the devotees are punctilious in all matters of ritual and rote.

I tend to agree with Dennett’s thinking and so separate religion and superstition. It is worth nothing that intermittent reinforcement schedules are the most effective way to encourage behaviors. The pigeon who pushes a button and receives a piece of grain each time will push the button less compulsively than a pigeon that pushes the same button and receives a piece of grain with random frequency. Likewise, the devotee who performs a specific ritual will perform it with greater and greater frequency, punctiliousness, or compulsivity until she feels she has found reinforcement (e.g., a feeling of peace, an answer to prayer, etc.). Sorry…this was a tangent.

Now, regarding religion. There are obviously more and less superstitious forms of religion, and I am not using superstition as I was above to describe impersonal magic, etc. I am now using superstition to describe heavily subjective forms of religion that will often lead a person to consistent paradigms of uncritical thought. Moving yet again away from Dennett’s description of religion….I consider myself part of a religious community and hence religious. I benefit from association with other peoples who have been down similar paths to arrive at liberal religious ideals that are rooted in humanist, Judeo-Christian, agnostic, and other thought systems. In this community I am free to believe or to disbelieve—there is no one destination, just a sharing of journeys.

This all being said, when I am critical of religion I am generally focused on those religious paradigms that promote uncritical thought and retrograde moralities. In other words, I am critical of fundamentalist religious systems and not the far more benign or even beneficial liberal systems that do promote critical thought, unfettered acceptance of the scientific method, and pluralism.

Now that I have wandered a bit….Let me ask you Andrew. What do you feel are the more compelling circumstantial evidences for God and the supernatural? We not be able to find consensus on this, but I still would like to have the opportunity to ponder your response.