A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, May 7, 2017
Science is probably all we can really count on. Not science in the sense of what we know now, but science in the sense of a process by which we ask and answer the big questions that we face as individuals, as a species, as inhabitants of this planet and solar system.
Not “scientism,” which actually means simply using the scientific process, but which comes with the connotations of all -isms, as a faith-based system, a set of unquestioned and unquestionable assumptions.
Nope. Science. The processes that Sir Francis Bacon was setting in motion 400 years ago, when he wrote, for example, that “to invent is to discover that we know not, and not to recover what we already know,” because—yes, it was he who said it—“knowledge is itself power,” adding that such processes take time, noting that “to deliberate about useful things is the safest delay” and “half of science is putting forth the right questions.”
The process by which we try to figure out everything from how sodium bonds with chloride to make salt, why birds sing, how far it is to the closest “goldilocks”—neither too hot nor too cold—planet, and what makes the human mind the human mind.
That last one, the stuff about the brain, is the one I’ve been paying the most attention to over the past decade or so. Reading books and articles, then viewing lots of my work with teaching and learning through the lens of the question, “What is the brain doing now?”
Every now and then I meet a neurobiologist or a brain scientist or whatever they call themselves, and I feel like I’m in the presence of some … well, some sort of priest, or at least acolyte, somebody who’s as close to the divine as one can be.
Not because there’s anything divine or even really special about the human brain. Just because it’s there, allowing me to type these words, to read these words while you listen to these words, think about these words or maybe hope that Marilyn brought deviled eggs today, or think about how your son or daughter or grandson or nephew is faring in nursery school or graduate school or with his or her new partner—or whatever that amazing doo-hickey in your head is doing right now as I say the words, “whatever that amazing doo-hickey in your head is doing right now.”
So it was no wonder that when I read that Brown University was culminating its Brain Week with the Brown Brain Fair on Sunday, March 19, I headed over to Sayles Hall to see what was up.
It wasn’t just a matter of seeing what they had to say about the brain. It was bigger. There I’d be, amid some really smart people who’d be manning (or is it personning these days?) tables offering information about everything from Autism to neuroplasticity.
See, because I’d been studying—that’s a loose use of the term—what the research was showing us about the brain, I knew that I’d probably encounter the cutting edge of some of these topics.
And please remember that when I was messing around with the idea of science while introducing the subject of this sermon, I didn’t call science “what we know about” various things, but “the process by which we try to figure out” various things.
So I knew, for example, that brain researchers (and others) have been studying and debating things like whether there is something that can reasonably be referred to as “human nature,” or whether we’re just a bundle of cultural characteristics attached to a few pretty basic instincts; and whether there is a “self” somewhere in the brain, or whether it’s just an illusion that the brain develops to make life easier for the being it’s in charge of. I knew that some of the older issues—whether there are specific locations in the brain for specific kinds of knowledge, whether the brain can regenerate lost skills, and the like—had been resolved, or so it would appear.
And I knew that brain researchers have a long way to go.
I know this because of my old friend Steve, a nuclear physicist whom I met in kindergarten in 1952. He’s spent 25 years working on controlled fusion—you know, the possibility that the result of fusing two atoms could be controlled so as not to make a hydrogen bomb, but to release energy that could be used to generate electricity.
Twenty-five years, essentially messing around with the same formulae in the hopes that the planned experiment, called “ignition,” when lasers would be aimed at some atoms in the hope that more energy would be released than it took to run the lasers, would take place.
Twenty-five years. He finally retired, not long after an only moderately successful effort. He still goes back to the lab to lend a hand from time to time. He’s still hopeful.
Will it work? Will we ever successfully control these fusion reactions to produce the power we need?
And that’s not just a rhetorical answer. Nobody knows. And nobody will know until we do it, until somebody somewhere can control the energy released by fusing two atoms. Until we do it, we don’t know, either whether it’s possible or impossible. That’s science. You don’t know until you know. You can’t ever say it won’t work. All you’ll be able to say is that it works when it works.
Trial and error.
If the likes of Steve don’t continue working on the problem, we’ll never know.
Science like that pursued by a couple of graduate students at a table sponsored by Brown’s Metcalf Infant Research Lab. One is studying whether babies learn nouns first or verbs.
Which is it? I asked.
Nouns. Hmm. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Nouns are often things. Things are what make up the world. Makes sense that’s what the brain would want to know about.
This conversation led us off into a discussion of the is-there-human-nature-or-not? debate. Not to answer it. Just to connect it with this research.
And then I asked, Is it nouns first in all languages?
No, he responded. In Mandarin, infants learn verbs first.
Hmm. Do verbs play a different role in Mandarin from the one they play in English?
Yeah, he said, it’s a more verb-centric language.
In Mandarin, you don’t have to always state the noun; it can be implied in the verb.
So we continued with the human-nature-or-not debate.
But I walked away without asking the big question: Why study this at all?
I didn’t ask because I knew the answer.
Scientists study this because it’s there to be studied. It’s part of the world we live in. It’s better to figure out how the world works and why than not.
Why? Because you never know. You never know what any discovery will do, how it might help, what it might be used for, what it might tell you about things you don’t even know you don’t know anything about.
This is, of course, not to say that all scientific efforts are benign. We discovered radioactivity over a hundred years ago. A half-century later, we discovered that it could be used to kill more people at one fell swoop than anything we’d ever discovered, leading the Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer to quote from the Bhagavad Gita on watching the first atomic explosion, saying “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” A decade or so later, we started to use it to produce power. In relatively short order, we discovered that producing power like this came with big downsides called Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
So, Steve and his buddies got to work.
Or, to use another example, while we’re all benefiting—often without even realizing it—from the computer-based safety features that come with our automobiles, with the algorithms that allow me to find out the dates of Francis Bacon’s life with a few keystrokes, with all the pre-artificial-intelligence-like activities that so much of the modern world relies on, there’s Mr. Physics himself, Stephen Hawking, warning us about the likely downsides of this kind of research.
Speaking to the Times of London, this long-time supporter of artificial intelligence research suggests that the only way to protect ourselves from what the headline refers to as a “robot uprising” if we’re not careful with where we take the research—and where it takes us—may be world government. He explains that “We need to be quicker to identify such threats and act before they get out of control…. [But] this might mean some form of world government..., [which, however,] might become a tyranny.”
It’s given us anti-biotics, which have … enabled? caused? forced? … the evolution of superbugs for which there is no cure. It’s given us treatments that allow us to live longer and longer, though some of us live out those last years essentially quarantined in institutions, or in demented states.
And so on.
To say nothing of the periodic revelation of scientists who have faked their research for personal or professional reasons. To say nothing of the findings—like those that told us to switch from butter to margarine—that further research indicates were incorrect—like those telling us that the kind of saturated fats found in margarine actually do more harm than the animal fats that come with butter; to say nothing of the debates over extremes like vegan diets versus paleo-diets.
And then there’s the fact that science just isn’t as sexy as what most religions have to offer. Here’s what Stephen Dunn has to say about sending his daughter to summer camp at the Smithville Methodist Church:
Then we took our seats in the church and the children sang a song about the Ark, and Hallelujah and one in which they had to jump up and down for Jesus. I can't remember ever feeling so uncertain about what's comic, what's serious.
Evolution is magical but devoid of heroes. You can't say to your child "Evolution loves you." The story stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries. I didn't have a wonderful story for my child and she was beaming. All the way home in the car she sang the songs,
occasionally standing up for Jesus. There was nothing to do but drive, ride it out, sing along in silence.
That’s it. There’s science at its bare-bones most basic. “Evolution stinks of extinction and nothing exciting happens for centuries.”
That’s it. A far cry from an all-powerful God creating this and that out of nothing, just because he wants to, or Sumerian gods or Hindu gods or Aztec gods battling it out for this or that, taking sides with us or them. With suffering that has meaning, with death that offers fulfillment, with big questions that some being actually knows the answers to.
None of the magic and drama. None of the clarity and certainty. None of the purpose and direction.
Science doesn’t offer us this.
But it does offer the possibility of, eventually, helping us understand what’s really going on. Not why—there’s probably no answer for that—but what, and how, and for how long, and where.
These are really troubling times to live in, with politics all around the world twisting and turning toward inwardness and hatred and violence, with overall climates and specific weather patterns clearly taking new and probably troublesome tacks, with species disappearing while new microbes invent themselves in ways that may make us sicker than those that we’ve conquered.
Through it all, though, I periodically come upon amazing comfort.
This may come from reading things like what Alexander von Humboldt had to say to the poet Goethe as he began to understand in the early 1800s how amazingly complex nature was, when he wrote, “Nature must be experienced through feeling. Those who want to describe the world by simply classifying plants, animals and rocks will never get close to it.”
Or reading what ethnologist Pierre Clastre discovered about the place of war in primitive societies from his years of research in the Amazon basin.
Or from watching a NASA video about the seven earth-like planets orbiting a dwarf star at the center of the Trappist One system that a telescope in Chile recently discovered.
Or listening to the young woman at the Brain Fair describing what she’s finding about how babies learn language. Or listening to my friend Steve talking about his hopes that eventually the problem he spent a quarter of a century researching will eventually bear fruit.
I read or watch or hear any of these things and I’m comforted, exhilarated, that people like this are here, that they exist, that they’re trying to figure out what’s going on, how it works, what it might have to tell us.
No, it’s not as comforting as the idea that some deity cares about me.
But it tells me that there are people who understand that it’s up to us to figure it all out, and who’re willing to dedicate their lives to the endeavor.
Science is no religion, and these people are no saints.
But they may be as close as we can get.