It is sometimes surprising how radically the meaning of something can change when we put the exact same words in a different context.
My father-in-law used to refer to his wife as “the rose in his garden.” He was obviously not referring to a botanical reality. He did, however, have a rose-bush in his garden, and when he said when we pruned it in the fall that we should “murder” it, he was just as obviously not referring to his wife. Actually, he didn’t mean to literally murder the bush either.
Sometimes we can mistake the context or an idea or not recognize that it’s a context at all. When I was about three, my mother once explained that my dad would be late for dinner because he was “tied up on the road.” I thought she meant this literally, and wondered how my father was going to unknot the ropes which were tying him up.
It’s not just the thinking of individuals that we need to understand in context. Stories, literature, art, myth, even laws have to be understood in context.
So too, scientific thinking, like all other thought, has developed in a context. In terms of modern science, it emerged in 15th century Europe when the political power of the Roman Church was still paramount. As the story of Galileo demonstrates, it was often dangerous to think scientifically, and scientists for centuries tread a careful path between evaluating observable evidence and avoiding censure.
One of the attempts to do this was to emphasize that science was concerned only with explanations provided by natural laws. Theological thought, God, and the rest of the spiritual world belonged solely to the authority of the Church. This was not a totally successful strategy – it is still not today – but it often created the space for some kind of co-existence.
Bu the thinking of scientists was not uninfluenced by this compromise. One of the most critical compromises was the scientists’ implicit agreement to keep hands off the supernatural world. But without realizing it, I believe scientists surrendered a part of reality to the religious authorities. Plato had posited a supernatural world in the first place to explain how it was possible for us to have ideas about perfect things that do not actually exist in the concrete world of our experience.
In giving up the supernatural world as an explanation for natural events, scientists inadvertently assented to give consciousness a spiritual dimension. Consciousness, intention and goal-seeking were dismissed as potentially authentic scientific explanations.
This surrender was given a major boost by Newton’s theory of gravity. What gravity did was to mechanize the scientific view of the universe. It was – and is – an incredibly powerful theory, and displaced angels and similar explanations for how the stars stay up in the sky while apples fall to the ground.
Ironically, Newton himself recognized that gravity was not exactly a mechanical dynamic. Gravity does not involve any physical contact between bodies acting on each other, and Newton was forced to posit an additional mysterious force which he did not elaborate. It was perhaps comparable to the concept of dark energy which scientists today posit must be out there, but which they cannot yet define.
This mechanization represented a huge leap forward in our understanding of the universe. But it also led to what I think was a terrible loss from which we are only just beginning to recover in the last one hundred years or so.
With mechanization, the universe became passive. Dynamic forces were dismissed as epi-phenomena — not real in themselves. Animals were said to be no more than sophisticated machines, and were subject to horribly cruel experiments on the grounds that they are incapable of feeling any more than a car engine can feel. Everything that ever happened or ever would happen was the result of the operation of completely mechanical forces that will roll irrevocably forward to final entropy.
Science today sees the universe as far more dynamic. Matter itself is no longer perceived as purely passive, but to contain within itself the very energy that pushes the unfolding universe forward.
In the past, and for some even today, this suggestion that the universe possesses an intrinsic dynamic was dangerously close to a return to supernatural explanations. It was sneaking God in by the back door.
But today as quantum mechanics on one hand and astrophysics on the other are revealing realities to us that are incomprehensible in terms of our common sense conclusions, mysteries such as the thought processes that Plato found so inexplicable, or the potential of an intrinsically dynamic universe are no longer so intolerable. Scientists are less terrified of questions that in the past might have been held up as evidence of God and a supernatural world.
I think that in some ways this is giving us our world back. One can be a scientist without having to deny the essential reality of so many of those realities that were volunteered originally to the Church.
It’s why I myself find it so liberating to accept that I live inevitably in mystery. It means I don’t have to distort my experience to fit theory.
I can just say “we don’t know yet.”
And we’re never ever going to get to the point where there isn’t something we can’t explain.