2007/05/02

Soulless science and rationalism

Alan Finder had an interesting piece this morning in the NYT: "Matters of Faith Find a New Prominence on Campus": Peter J. Gomes has been at Harvard University for 37 years, and says he remembers when religious people on campus felt under siege. To be seen as religious often meant being dismissed as not very bright, he said.
No longer. At Harvard these days, said Professor Gomes, the university preacher, 'There is probably more active religious life now than there has been in 100 years'. "



What's going on?

Science and rationalism have never offered a simple and all encompassing worldview answering the many foundational questions that each of us hears popping in his mind at one or another moment in his life. Where does the universe come from? How do I fit in the wholeness of the universe? What is life? Is there life after death? And so on.

It is not as if it were impossible to find credible answers to those questions from a rationalist or scientific standpoint but fact is that only those who accumulated a vast body of scientific knowings can possibly find such credible answers out of rationalism. That means that the vast majority of students and should I say the vast majority of citizens do not have the means to find such answers through rationalism.

But living without shared certainty in your head about those foundational questions can be distressful, for, you will never find peace of mind and you will also never fully sense the warmth and security offered by a participation in a group or society.

Individuals, at the image of atoms, are components of the grouping they belong to. Atoms of iron unrelated to other atoms of iron are nothing. It's the iron indeed that confers them an existence. The same goes for human individuals. We can't possibly exist by or on ourselves. It's the grouping we belong to that confers the viability of our individual existence. And the belonging to a grouping is, first and foremost, a question of psychic bonding with the other members. This is realized through the sharing of a common worldview that acts as a gluing of the individuals into the group.

The sharing of such a worldview is also what ultimately assures the reproduction of the group and its development.

It is as if life, or humanity for that matter, were only springing into existence when their polarities are interacting: on one side the group, the society and on the other the individuals. The contradictions between those poles appear as generating the energy that drives their unity to change, to evolve, down the line of time.
Take out the sharing of a common worldview (belief system) by the individuals or give them latitude to believe in whatever they want and the contradictions between them and the group they belong to fade away thus reducing or eliminating the production of energy that is necessary to power the evolution of the unity they belong to. That's when the grouping starts to disintegrate. The same mechanism would equally be at work if society were covering the whole space of life. This would indeed suffocate the individuals to their death.

The Wolfram Demonstrations Project gives an excellent visualization of the "Yin Yang" that perfectly illustrates my comments: "variations of the classic Chinese symbol that animate the motto of Niels Bohr: Contraria non contradictoria sed complementa sunt. (Opposites are not contradictory but complementary.)"

In fact Yin-Yang are no opposites as suggested on Wolfram.com they are indeed acting more like the polarities of any unity.

Let's say for the sake of convenience that white represents society and black represents the individuals. What we see, from Wolfram's visualization, is that when black covers the full space of the unity represented by the circle then there remains no white which would mean the total disappearance of society...

For the Chinese the Tao of life is to avoid all excesses and harmony is to be found in the middle-ground where the 2 polarities find their maximum breathing space. The dynamic visualized by Wolfram's demonstration shows the range of movements that changing conditions possibly can follow within any given unity along the span of time. In some periods the white of society can be dominant but if society were to represent the whole of humanity then there would be absence of black meaning no individuals any longer... and by definition that would also represent the death of society. In other periods the black of individuals can be dominant but if it were to represent the whole of humanity then there would be absence of white meaning no society any longer... and by definition that would represent the death of the individuals. What this shows us is that all white or all black are an existential impossibility.

The ill-feeling experienced by many individuals in late modernity could thus be understood as a natural mechanism, biological perhaps?, of rejection of the atomization of their societies that on Wolfram's visualization corresponds to an ever increasing blackening of the circle...

Late modernity concludes with such a societal atomization and the fact is that societies really appear starting to disintegrate. On one side the individuals follow their own belief system that is formed as their life goes by but on the other side they also feel more and more ill at-ease and experience a growing yearning for sharing a common worldview with others. This is what Alan Finder's article is all about and, by the way, it is also what many Chinese are experiencing nowadays after the chaos unleashed on them by the excessively rapid entry of their country into modernity...

Understanding the societal need for a strong worldview to be shared by the individuals is one thing. But we better be aware that past worldviews, if they possibly could satisfy the individuals, never will they satisfy their societies. Today's conditions on the ground, in terms of established knowings, are different from the time when those past worldviews emerged. And so societies that would be driven by hegemonic past-worldviews are bound to lose out to those that succeed to devise worldviews out of present realities. Their citizens will indeed find it difficult to admit, adjust, and surf on the waves of their time while the citizens of societies that will succeed to adopt a worldview adapted to the present times will assuredly be better equipped to let the waves of our present reality carry them forward.


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