“Rehearsal”: Writing the scripts for nature and faith?

Gavin says:

I may not have been quite clear. I think your goals are great, I’m trying to understand the strategy and I want you to understand how the strategy is going to look to scientists who are fending off well coordinated and well funded attacks on their credibility. When you make a comment like:

“And, okay, I’m sorry, but if energy is massless and if it fills “empty” space, in what sense then are we still saying that the science of physics is an empirical science?” [in “Thanks, Great Impetus for my work”]

We are going to flip out. I don’t think this is what you intend, but I’m saying that you start sounding a lot like a global warming denier or an advocate of intelligent design when you question the foundations of our field based on . . . I don’t even know what it is based on because I have no idea what that sentence is talking about!

Janet replies:

Oh, what a relief. I need people to tell me when I say things like that. This blog has helped me be much more sensitive to responses from the science side, but I still take these shortcuts and get in trouble. I need to make one long structured argument where I can make all the qualifications I need to make as I go along. (I work on this longer argument all the time.)

I’ve been thinking hard about this particular impasse you and I have hit. One thing is that a liberal art is supposed to be liberating. Learning a plurality of them is supposed to be personally, intellectually, and civic-ly liberating. So we can work for a good society and strive for good lives, as well as pushing back the frontiers of knowledge within our fields.

When I said that about “empirical” I was thinking of the science bloggers with their unthinking descriptions of what it is they think they are doing as scientists, when it should be uppermost in their minds, perhaps, how complicated and wonderfully unexpected it all has become. I was also thinking of Hume and my life-long battle with those philosophers who say that the only things we can know to be real are direct sensory impressions, when science is always working with theoretical constructs and the way those constructs as a whole point forward. Like the standard theory guiding you toward the HIggs boson when we don’t empirically know it exists at this point. That is such a good paradigm for scientific progress, isn’t it?

My concern with the science blogs — just those really ferocious ones — is that those kids aren’t liberated. They are in a lot of pain and they are afraid. They are really angry and out for blood. They remind me of some of the fundamentalist kids I’ve worked with over the years within Christianity.

I woke up this morning with the word REHEARSAL in my mind. Re-hearsal. I wonder if this metaphor or model might be made to help? Like every other discipline, perhaps, science is trying to write the script for how the natural world works. But instead of having the script in advance and rehearsing it for the final performance, you are working on developing the script piece by piece as you go along. Galileo and Newton worked on a script for physical motion and how objects move by rehearsing over and over again with pendulums and rolling balls and formulating the principles that they worked up a script to fit the phenomena. Their work was gorgeous and superb and solid, but of course when we got other parts of the script going and looked at larger sections of it, you had to revise the interpretations of the pieces and move to a deeper and more inclusive subtext. And now scientists realize that they will most probably always be doing that because the reality for which they are writing the script is so complex and studying parts of it are perhaps impossible and so on.

What makes the hard sciences different from other disciplines, and from the way jazz musicians develop the script of jazz improvisation or literary theorists write the scripts for how the textual motions of Hamlet correspond to large and deeper cultural subtexts, or how parents read and talk and try to piece together the best script they can for parenting their kids, is the nature of the phenomena they are dealing with, which can be studied through their methodology based on experimental verification of hypothesis (provisional scripts) — or rather experimental “falsification,” since the experiments can basically only disprove, but not prove, the hypothesis. This is so wonderful and so fundamentally creative and ingenuous, that it is sad to see it being talked about by some of its own defenders as though it was a matter of proving facts and then building them one and top of another.

Is this better?

The problem with biblical literalism is very much the same. If the scriptures might be a set of texts reflecting encounters with God and offering profound reflections and insights on subjects such as human sin and error and pride and the power of love, then those who respect these texts must be constantly engaged in finding their scripts and the deeper subtexts that might relate the scripts. The meanings aren’t sitting there on the surface ready to be gobbled up, any more than nature’s script is sitting on the surface self-evidently there for all to see.

We Christians have to get together in our various traditions and work on it by trial and error and learn from the history of our traditions and our developing scripts for these texts, and their deeper trajectories. We have to hold fast to our deepest insights and experiences over the centuries, and yet constantly seize the subtexts afresh. We have paradigm change with underlying continuitity just as science does, and we are even more concerned about interpretation because we have to live our lives by our best current interpretations, even though we know they are not absolute. These texts all point beyond themselves in a way that the script for the natural world was not designed to do. Science develops its script by looking at the natural world in purely naturalistic terms.

I’m an Episcopalian, and right now in New Orleans the American Episcopla Church is at loggerheads with parts of the world-wide Anglican communion, especially the African churches, over how to read the text of the Christian tradition and scriptures. They have a different script than most of us do. And we are trying to model how to remain humble and thoughtful and be ready to make respectful compromises and still move forward with what we in all conscience think the script ultimately has been pointing toward all along, an inclusive vision.

But we don’t claim to have a proven certainty that we can force upon others, or that our script has a lock on the truth. I totally understand why many scientists might question why we keep going with such a search for knowledge here, where the texts and their scripts are so much less readily determined than in the sciences. (I do think we are doing validity testing all the time, every hour of every day, but it isn’t the nice controlled experiments of science!) Lets just say that the nature of this knowledge, the experience of this relationship, however limited and uncertain, is for us worth the quest.

The Anglican tradition has always been the church of the via media — the “middle way” — and the one that has tried to refuse to go to one extreme or the other, but keeps on negotiating a thoughtful position in the midst of all the controversies, keeping in conversation with the Orthodox and with Catholicism and Protestantism and holding the radical middle, so to speak.

But I’m getting away from the central script here, which is the nature of the liberal arts and of human ways of knowing in general. Does this “script” metaphor seem helpful? For those who read the Wily Socrates posts on Plato’s Ion, the “scripts” here are the ikes, the epistemes, and there are many of them and they each formulate the elegant formalities of their own kind of thing. This is how medieval theologians worked on scripture and on their doctrinal fields, by the way. The creeds were scripts for where we were going and what we were trying to experience and understand, individually and collectively, not propositional statements to which we could “agree.” The truths of the creeds were what we were on a pilgrimage to try to understand, not propositions to be agreed to blindly for their own sake.

Augustine said that the one enduring subtext of all the scriptural texts was “to enhance the reign of charity,” and that every interpretation must be guided by that principle. The script is a script of love, in other words. In the natural world, the script science has been developing through its superb and ingenuous rehearsals has perhaps been guided by the principle of elegant formal causation, which may or may not amount to strict deterministic causation in various situations, but is always mathematical and elegant.

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One Response to ““Rehearsal”: Writing the scripts for nature and faith?”

  1. Gavin Says:

    Janet,

    I got the answer to what you want to do, but I’m still unsure whether learning some science has anything to do with it. Why are you asking about mass and energy and the Higgs Boson? Is this really what you need to know?

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