Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How do we know what we know?

I learned a new phrase recently that describes something I'd already suspected. The phrase is "digitally stitched panorama". There are a lot of them on the web these days. People e-mail these “amazing, you won’t believe this” pictures to me all the time.

There is a great web site, "Astronomy Picture of the Day" with a new photo of some astronomical feature each day.  The picture for the other day was described as a "digitally stitched panorama," one that has been constructed out of more than one photo.

I'm glad to have it correctly identified.  Yes, it's beautiful and amazing, but I still like to be able to distinguish art from reality whenever possible.  I prefer to know when something has been "crafted".  

I appreciate the picture as "art" but I don't confused it with “reality”, whatever that may be. Saying that, we still can understand that art can present us with a different kind of reality that may not be realized as such in the natural world, but which is true for us nevertheless because it is something we think or conceive. Art deals in metaphor, in ideas.  Metaphors can be real in the sense that they present a thing to us in such a way that we sense an identity or “see” a thing in an enhanced new way. As humans, we attach meaning to such things. Things that deeply stir our emotions and our sense of meaning are best expressed through art, poetry, music, metaphor, or a story. Like Augustine, we experience more than we can understand.

A metaphor of course doesn’t MAKE a thing true. But when many others share our reaction to the metaphor over a long period of time then we are pretty safe in assuming that something important has been communicated. This is how religion emerges. Unlike philosophy, which is often appreciated only by a few, and studied by fewer still, religion emerges out of the hopes and experiences of ordinary people. It emerges as art, metaphor, poetry, as a story. Digitally stitched together from many sources over a very long period of time.

We all know from television crime shows that several people can witness the same event and come away with different conclusions about what happened. That is because when we “see” something, we don’t just see with our eyes. We also “see” with our fears, hopes, desires, degree of education, prejudices, experience and many other facets of who we are.

Over time, our shared experiences can take on a narrative that takes on a life of its own. Take for example, the Parting of the Red Sea as described in the Bible. It’s quite possible that many people witnessed and survived a cataclysmic natural event of such a nature that it made an enormous impression. It could well have been that the event occurred in a time frame approximate to a migration of people away from an oppressive regime and the two events merged in memory as a “stitched panorama.” As a result, over time a story emerged that was so important it became the foundation story for one of the great world’s religions. The story was important because it spoke to meaning, to hope and aspiration. That’s what good stories do.

We’ve learned in our time about the natural events called tsunamis and we have scientific instruments strategically stationed in the oceans where these events are likely to take place to measure the undersea earthquakes (which we can’t see) which create tsunamis and to hopefully provide advance warning to people who might be affected when one occurs. We’ve witnessed the powerful destructive effects of tsunamis on television and how water can retreat from a shallow bay area for a period of time before it comes rushing back to overtake and drown everyone and everything for miles inland.

We’ve also learned that the part of the ancient world the Hebrews crossed on their way from Egypt to what was to become their homeland is an area very likely to have been subject to an event of this nature.

How do we know what we know? We can scientifically measure the magnitude of events like earthquakes. And, believe it or not, from our measurements a story emerges. Science is also a story, using metaphor, that attempts to describe what we have experienced. What is 7.0 on the Richter Scale? It’s only a number with no intrinsic meaning. But it’s a rough calculation of the amount of damage that can be done to property and lives when such an event occurs. Physics also is a metaphor. No one really knows what a photon is. A model is built, a metaphor, a story is told to shed light on what we’ve come to understand about the nature of electricity. But the story is not “the thing in itself.” Science knows that from time to time long standing “metaphors” or models have to be modified when understanding is increased by further experience and research.

But we are unable to measure the magnitude of a story that gives hope and meaning to a people. We retell the story again and again until time and experience provide us with a better story. Some stories hang around for a long long time. With good reason. Even stories we readily identify as metaphors, or tales. There is a necessity at the heart of all knowledge; a truth that helps us understand things.

A story that must be told. As humans we are hard wired to want to understand what we experience so we put events through the filter of what we already know and draw conclusions. We all know what we know from this process, from babies to physicists. As time goes by, we refine this process by seeking to acquire more knowledge about the things we “know” and perhaps we learn to “see” things, understand things in a different light.

Perhaps, to change the way we think.

I’m using these two illustrations, the Astronomy Picture of the Day and the Parting of the Red Sea, (which no one was able to photograph either, by the way) to illustrate what I want to say in this meditation, and to set the stage for what I hope to say in this new set of meditations on my web site, taochrist.org. This new set of meditations in “Off the Grid” is set apart from the first set because I want to push the envelope and go further with the same ideas presented earlier.

The ideas of the original set of meditations were these:

(1) To explore the nature of spirituality that is common to all the great religions.

(2) To present a new, yet old way to reimagine and practice our faith in order to recapture its true universalist vision.

What I want to do now is to explore some of the conditions that are necessary in order for religion to be able to speak to us in light of the times we live in, in what has been called “a new paradigm,” a new way of seeing and understanding the world we live in. For religion to be relevant for us it has to speak to us within the context of our experiences in the world we live in. Within the context of what we now “know.”

Many thoughtful people who are concerned about “truth” have abandoned religion. I’m not claiming that religion as previously understood or practiced can or should be preserved. But religion has shaped culture even as it has emerged from culture. It has always been the underpinning of our value system, the rudder of our ship. We can’t live successfully in this world or in any other without a system of commonly shared values and goals. Religion has been able to provide this system because it has had “authority” that has been granted to it by the people and culture from which it has evolved. Religion consists of a set of metaphors that have arisen out of the hopes, needs, aspirations of a community. Unfortunately, the authority which underpins religion has too often become authoritarianism. True authority is never forced. It is recognized and bestowed.

Our world no longer appreciates authority. People often now rely on individual experience to shape their value system. But this presents great difficulties because individual experience is limited, has need of maturity, varies widely, often is unreliable and can lead the person into mistaken or self-destructive directions.

If not religion, then what can take it’s place? We may have to start calling it something else in order to escape the stigma the modern world has attached to it but whatever takes its place will still need to function in the same way. It must provide a story, a metaphor for our commonly stitched together memories of what we value, of what gives meaning to our existence.

It just can’t be business as usual in regard to religion, faith and values. We’re seeing powerful and disturbing forces in our society that are undermining our security and our future, especially the future of our children because these destructive forces are attacking our historically shared values and goals. We are experiencing the loss of community, the loss of respect for people in leadership positions, the loss of the voice of authority. We are presented with huge ethical challenges that we lack the tools to deal with. Chaos and institutional failure often are the result.

Let’s return to the idea that there is a “necessity at the heart of all knowledge.”

One of the problems with trying to read ancient texts, like the Bible or Upanishads, for example, is that in those times people didn’t have the tools such as science, technology, sociology, history etc. to understand their experiences but they had the same necessity to know. Why, How, What? When a body of water suddenly empties and later a wave twenty stories high comes rushing at you out of nowhere and inundates everything in sight, WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON?

The stories they told attempted to answer these questions. The basic questions haven’t changed. When two airplanes come out of nowhere on September 11th and crash into the World Trade Center towers, WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON? If my child gets a measles shot and later develops autism, “WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON.”

There is a necessity at the heart of all knowledge.

So I want to name some things that I see as necessary to understanding who we are, what is the nature of our world, where do we find common values, and WHAT ON EARTH IS GOING ON. And in defense of religion as it has been delivered to us, when it comes to things like value and ethics, they pretty much got it right because religion emerged out of the exact same set of conditions that we find ourselves in.

THE NEED AND NECESSITY FOR COMMUNITY. THE NEED TO MAKE SENSE OUT OF WHAT IS GOING ON. What we need are stories, metaphors that work for us.

Happily, we needn’t look very far.

The need and necessity that caused religion to emerge in the first place are still with us. The big questions. Why am I here? What is asked of me? Why do bad things happen to innocent people? Why suffering? What on earth is going on? These are the things I want to write about. These are the questions that religion or whatever takes it place must take seriously and somehow find a metaphor to describe if we are to survive in our civilized state. Or if not, then where can we look for direction for a future that we can all agree upon.

These things.

First, we live in a disenchanted world. We no longer believe in magic. We must take science into account in our belief system. That said, we also need to understand that scientists will tell you that science is also metaphor, a model to describe as best as possible the world of experience. But with strict guidelines.

Second, we live in a world that is multicultural and multi religious. Culture and religion have necessarily evolved in harmony with what a people know and how they know it and different cultures have experienced the world differently. But we all have the same questions.

Therefore, religion must be understood as metaphor. And we can take metaphor seriously. We just don’t enshrine it. There are some distinct guidelines.

Fourthly. And this will perhaps be most difficult for many to accept, especially many Christians. Values and ethics have evolved out of the needs of community rather than as a fiat from a supernatural source.

What we need is a story for our times. And there are many stories in our time that ring true for us . Stories that speak to our hearts and sense of value, that give us hope, that spur our creative imaginations. Stories that can help us recapture community.
The old stories did just that and so do many of the new stories. They just lack the ring of authority and are not commonly shared.

But if we can change the way we think if we can reexamine the old stories that have been handed down to us over hundreds, perhaps even thousands of generations, if we can see these stories as metaphors. We may be able to learn from them once again. We may be able to learn that the world hasn’t changed that much after all and that people are not really very different from a few thousand years ago in spite of our technology. We may learn that many of the values we individually hold to be self evident, important, were shared by earlier people in earlier times.

Of course many things have changed. Culture has evolved. But in the context of experience and meaning, all our hopes, values, fears, dreams, needs are much the same. We’ve all been telling basically the same stories all along. They have authority because all peoples, all religions, all cultures, tell basically the same stories for the same reasons.

These stories have made community possible. Have made it work. And they can again.