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Facing In and Facing Out
by Jan Sand
2008-01-18 10:03:07
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A good many animals have tails and I consider it a personal tragedy that I am missing one. A well-articulated prehensile tail could be a very useful addition to my physiology. While I'm typing at my word processor I would very much appreciate a tail that could handle my mouse or lift a hot cup of coffee to my dry lips while I am skittering around a few new concepts.

But, in some form of compensation, we humans have developed several capabilities that seem to have, at best, only vague, peripheral and indirect connection to the prime directives of survival and reproduction.

There are the arts, graphic and three-dimensional, music, the theater, dance, and many of those odd in-between activities that produce some of the strangest, most cryptic actions and objects I have ever encountered.

And then there is religion and then there is science

One possible classification of human activities is to separate them on the way they face. Some disciplines face outward toward the universe outside of human activity. They look at the stars, they look at the atom, and they look at the environment. But not the bellybutton. That requires a focus inward towards one's self and the interactions humans have towards each other. And, of course, there are the Janus activities, two faced – both in and out.

Both religion and science started from the same source. The desire to give some shape to the universe and attempt to understand what it can do and why. Underlying this mental adventure was the very basic motive to predict how things react to each other and to the possibilities of human interference in these reactions.

And the initial approach to this understanding is quite similar in both religion and science. They both fabricate possibilities as to how things are arranged and how they will act. For centuries early science and religion were intimately intertwined. Inert substances were infused with almost human motivations so that, for instance, magnets "desired" to attract or repel or particular materials "liked" or "disliked" each other. Religion was intricately involved in animating the universe with characters that loved and hated, schemed and pleasured themselves in the same manner as humans.

Since religions relied on a universe of anthropomorphized forces it was deemed possible to use social methods to manipulate nature. One could plead to assumed gods or demons or other imaginary powerful beings for rain or good fortune or relief from thunderstorms, droughts and earthquakes. The chaotic element of chance occasionally seemed to make these prayers efficacious and so religion, even to today where it has become totally obvious that a thunderstorm has no interest whatsoever in supplicants, still maintains some force amongst the severely benighted.

The split between religion and science has its roots in the fundamental scientific technique of seeking positive confirmation of theories by testing them with experiment, something religion rejects totally in its demand that concepts be accepted on the basis of faith which relies on traditional dogma and authority rather than physical challenge.

Some of this split has very ancient roots in the contempt that many ancient philosophers held for working physically with materials and processes, an activity that was relegated to slaves and other laborers of low social status. This contempt, also, pervades many social systems today where many of the people dealing with processes vital to the basic maintenance of civilized life are held in contempt as opposed to those put in charge of skilled workmen in management positions and this is clearly reflected in contemporary wage levels.

To go back to the original proposition of humanity facing inward towards itself and outward to the forces of the universe, managers and other social manipulators face inward and workers and engineers and scientists must confront the difficulties of materials and how they interact with energies and therefore are the outward facing contingent of humanity.

There is no question that the monumental advances of civilization in current times in comprehending and controlling the materials and energies of the physical world are responsible to the outward facing faction of humanity. Unfortunately, many of the people in charge of social manipulation such as corporations and politicians have cleverly taken advantage of these advances to substantially solidify their social positions to the detriment of the general population and some wrong headed thinkers have attributed this malevolent development to the technological advances rather than to the social scoundrels who take advantage of and misuse them.

Human medicine is in a unique position from this point of view. On one hand the human physique including the brain is without question a physical mechanism which reacts much the same as any other physical object and in an outward facing attitude responds readily to physical manipulation. No well informed person today who has any hopes of remaining healthy would rely on any system but the purely mechanical maintenance of modern western medicine. There are some areas in which modern medicine is currently hopeless and in this circumstance many people retreat to ancient hopes and prayers which generally prove ineffective but in very rare circumstances the hopes seem to have a placebo effect which results in very occasional alleviation. But very few sensible people accept this as a reliable alternative to standard medicine until the acquired knowledge and techniques of standard medicine prove futile in providing alleviation and then, in desperation, even rational people move towards the ineffective methods of faith because there is no other hope. It is unfortunate that these most vulnerable people are preyed upon by organizations and individuals intent upon gaining financial and political control rather than providing any real help but humanity has been plagued by scoundrels throughout history and modern times has provided no surcease.

But whatever their problems and advantages both looking out and looking in are both necessary for humanity to maintain itself in an infinitely inventive universe which seems to amuse itself by perpetually providing novel attacks upon humanity specifically and all life in general whose various species arise and disappear throughout life's long history.

The disciplines of formal mathematics, speculative philosophy, imaginative literature, and many of the arts are introspective activities which provide the many various tools which come in handy when facing a puzzling universe.

The physiological immune system of life works in a like manner in that it has a huge potential to create protective molecules that might combat the many different attacking diseases that arise in nature. But the human body also has a filtering system that does not randomly mass produce these remedies until the body encounters the specific disease which prompts a specific immune molecule.

In like matter the outward facing of pragmatic testing of inward facing mental constructions is used by humanity to determine the utility of these free thinking proposals. This testing of ideas against the realities of the universe is crucial in the eternal battle against universal assault. This testing is conducted under the name of science and has enabled humanity, especially in the last several centuries, to rapidly advance the survival and extension of the species.

But the power granted by this pragmatic procedure has, especially during current times, often been grossly misapplied without contemplating ultimate consequences. This misapplication has been criticized by ignorant and emotional sectors as inherent in the scientific process itself which is extremely unfortunate since it is only by intelligent examination of current procedures and formulation of new ones that this destructive direction of humanity might be reversed.

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Emanuel Paparella2008-01-18 12:18:09



For an in depth, scholarly, and nuanced view of the current nexus between religion and science see two recent articles (links above)in Global Spiral by the founder of the Metanexus Institute (for the study of the nexus between religion and science) Professor William Grassie titled “The New Sciences of Religion,” and "The Neurosciences of Religion.”

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-18 13:32:00
P.S. A musing on today's cover picture: as most dog lovers know, Australian sheperd dogs have no tail. There is a rumor making the rounds that one of them has e-mailed the editor of Playboy magazine and requested to be featured in their centerfold section. The given rationale is that Australian sheperd dogs are the most human of dogs. No word yet whether Hugh Heffner will comply with the request.

Emanuel Paparella2008-01-18 18:14:48
On a more serious vein: here is the introduction to the first article above mentioned by William Grassie: The New Sciences of Religion. It may motivate the serious explorer of the nexus Religion/Science:

The last few years have witnessed a torrent of new books by noted scientists purporting to scientifically explain religion, mostly with the intentions of explaining religion away (Stenger 2007), (Dawkins 2006), (Dennett 2006), (Harris 2006), (Hamer 2005), (Harris 2004), (Wilson 2002), (Boyer 2001). What is religion? What is spirituality? How does one study it? How does one teach it? What does it mean to take a scientific approach to the study of religion? Are religions healthy and functional for individuals and societies, or are they unhealthy and dysfunctional? These are difficult questions at the center of some of the most challenging controversies of the 21st century.

In this essay, I employ the metaphor of inside and outside to characterize different ways of studying religion (McCutcheon 1999). In studying religion from the outside through science, I will survey different theories advocated and the limitations of those theories. I will argue for pluralistic methodologies in the scientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena. I will also argue that religious persons and institutions should welcome scientific investigation, because science impacts only interpretative strategies and does not present a fundamental challenge to core religious commitments. In the end, I will deconstruct the circle and challenge the boundaries that place religion on the inside as the subject and science on the outside as the objective on-looker. I begin and end with the problem of definitions.

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