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curiositism, crackpotism, me, and Mom

One of the reasons I don't mind driving Mom around when I visit is that we get to talk.  (She's still circumspect in her conversations about old boyfriends, though.)

This time we talked about - among other things - religion.  When discussing the possibility of punishment and reward in the afterlife, with an 83-year-old woman who's been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (although I've seen plenty of 50-year-olds that acted closer to the grave than she does), one has extra incentive to tread carefully.  Well, I have extra incentive; eldest brother has no qualms at all about telling her that God is the biggest farce ever foisted upon humankind.  But I have little interest in trying to destroy a belief system that supports Mom in difficult times, when she has never used it to do harm.  That said, I also have little interest in lying, and a desire to encourage the idea that bad things do not wait for her on the other side.  So I had to give the religion discussion some thought.

Mom did use my least favorite argument for the existence of God:  the argument that the world has so many amazing look-how-well-this-works things that there must be some higher being involved.  This seems very dismissive of the inherent beauty and wonder of life; it implies that the universe is not some astonishing mechanism, but just some deity screwing around.  It's a limitation in human thought:  a tendency to equate the unknown with the unknowable, especially when the sheer scope of it so thoroughly escapes our comprehension.  Our brains help cloud the issue by automatically filling in blanks for us:  they fill in a picture of the world even when our eyes can't see it, and are hardwired to desire pattern and reason.

And, yeah, I flaked out on confronting Mom on that one.  Because I've never found a way to argue it that didn't eventually imply I found the person to be small-minded or ignorant.  Mom already knows the science argument - she talked about it - and all I could really do is try to pile on more evidence.  Or, state my own beliefs and feelings about how freakin' cool the universe is, and how simultaneously nifty and damning it is that we've developed the ability to notice and question it.

"It must be God" answers no questions.  It's the equivalent of writing "here be dragons" at the edge of the mapped world, and then refusing to build a bigger boat.

But all that is about belief.  Not science.  You can't really argue belief; it's the thing in your soul/neurochemicals/whatever that tells you which direction to point yourself.  You can argue science.  Most debates about religion mash the two together, and both are diminished by it.  Scientists have beliefs too.  If they're good scientists, they admit and embrace their beliefs, and then try very hard to keep them out of the fact pile.

My irritation lies not with religion (belief), but with organized religion:  the human component, which is always far more flawed than the supreme perfection the organizers claim to be peddling.  Organized religion isn't always about God:  anyone trying to push a belief system onto another person is guilty of organized religion.  We've all been guilty of it, many times. 

It gets tricky, because we all want to share our world and none of us want to be alone, and we want to know the answers and feel a little confident.  It's hard to go through life with the feeling that the floor beneath you could be a mere illusion of stability, and the next step you take could be the one that proves it. 

We are alone in our beliefs, and we are alone in death.  These are the only things we truly own.

But I digress.  Science.  Science asks questions, hypothesizes answers, then asks more questions to see if the hypothesis stands up to scutiny.  When it doesn't, it is modified - or discarded - and the cycle begins again.

Science is not about absolutes, it's about statistical likelihoods and confidence levels.  At any point in time, the most basic scientific "fact" could be disproven, and a million hypotheses could be thrown into disarray.  The existence of a god cannot be disproven by science, because god - the concept of a supreme being who exists outside of the laws of science - by definition god has nothing to do with science; the two concepts are disjoint.  Science doesn't care whether there is a god:  that's just another name for the stuff we don't know yet. 

Belief interacts with science in the form of hypotheses.  Scientists have beliefs.  When a scientist chooses a hypothesis to investigate, his beliefs show through.  Mostly, scientists choose the path with the current greatest statistical likelihoods and confidence levels.  This is good:  it has the best chance of expanding our understanding of the world.

But I do not fault the crackpots, the guys who cling to unpopular ideas.  The crackpot life is not an ill-spent life, as long as it adheres to question-hypothesize-scrutinize.  There's always a chance they could be right, and we need that too:  diversity of thought allows us to think in multiple dimensions, instead of the single dimension of the path-most-likely.  Every once in a rare while, crackpots will shoot us forward in astonishing ways.  Crackpots should not succumb to defensiveness, and the mainstream should not denigrate or dismiss them, because there's no purpose in that.  Scientists should know - they must know - that the truth may end up being very different than what they'd hoped or believed, and shaming it away would only make the truth harder to find.

Our ability to analyze the world is always incomplete, as evidenced by our constant discoveries of new ways to analyze it.  We always have more to learn.  Science is about pushing a boulder up an infinite hill, all for the desire of the view from the top.

Anyway, Mom:  she believe in God, and she believes in an afterlife (although once, decades ago, she speculated that hell was the life we live now).  She does have problems with organized religion, but not deal-breaking problems.  She goes to church every Sunday, but says she mainly does it for fellowship.  This is something that organized religion can provide, and it can be a very positive thing.  However, I know some of the less-positive elements do creep in; Mom's asked me about the Harry Potter books, for example, as in someone (maybe her church, maybe a friend, I'm not sure) has been saying it's bad for kids to read them.  For the most part, she is not a scientist, but for the most part she leads a good life.  IMO, being a scientist is preferred, but it's not required (my crackpotism extends in all directions).

And me:  I am not an atheist, because the word has come to be identified with organized religion.  I need a new word.  I am a curiositist, and I believe that no good scientist can say with certainty that there is no god:  he can believe it, but he cannot prove it.  My belief is that there is no god, or if there is one then there is no dichotomy of afterlives, or if there is such a dichotomy then I stand against god on principle.  And I am a crackpotist:  weird and unpopular ideas should not be dismissed out of hand; it diminishes us to do so, and narrows our minds.  And I am...what's the word for a person who gains energy from uncertainty, and anchors herself in the certainty that she will never be done looking for answers?  I'm that thing.

Mom and I have a bit of that in common, too:  curiosity.  She has said she will never be bored, and she will never run out of things to do.  Which is how I know she will be okay.

Friending welcome, but lurking is fine too.

Constructive criticism is also welcome - whatever it is, trust me, I've heard worse.



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