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An essay donated by
Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys.

Science's Achilles Heel: Is it really
unable to explain why stuff matters?

The circle of life

Cartoon indicating pollution 1

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Everything Matters: Is this Science's Achilles Heel or its Moral Virtue?

An article on the Alternet web site caught my attention. It discusses an article in Psychology Today by Jeremy Sherman, and is titled:

“Why Do People Cherry-Pick Which Science They Accept? It’s not just the science-denier’s fault. It’s also science’s Achilles’ heel.” 1

An Achilles Heel is someone’s -- or in this case something’s fatal flaw, that brings on its destruction. If I remember my Greek mythology correctly, when Achilles was small his mother held him by one heel and dunked him into the magical River Styx in order to make him invincible. His heel didn’t make it into the magic waters. That one spot on his body was his fatal flaw. It was where he was ultimately wounded, and that wound caused his death.

I wondered what Mr. Sherman considers Science’s Achilles Heel? He claims it is:

“... science’s inability to solve or sometimes even face the mystery that matters most to us: the mystery of mattering in a material world.”

A bit later in his article, he says:

“It’s also that science, for all its power to explain things, has yet to explain why anything matters at all.”

This is related to one of the arguments one hears from some religious folk about Atheists: "Without God there is no meaning." There is no purpose to life. Nothing matters!

I suggest that Mr. Sherman and these folks are wrong!

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Science does explain why things matter.  They just don’t use the value laden language that many Religious leaders use. Nor do they threaten folks with hellfire and damnation if they refuse to listen to what the Scientists have to say. For most folk, what is happening here and now is all that matters to them. So, when Scientists say that something will happen some indefinite time in the future, most folks simply aren’t interested; they can’t be bothered. Mr. Sherman even points out one reason why they choose to do so, when he says:

“We all try to wriggle out from under the weight of burdensome obligations. ... If your church tells you that you can’t do something that you really want to do, you’ll try to find reasons why you don’t have to comply even though you’re supposed to commit to the whole package.”

This also applies to why people refuse to accept Science, it places a burdensome weight upon them and certain moral obligations that simply get in their way, keep them from doing what they want to do -- exploiting resources for their personal gain.

There is another reason why people refuse to accept Science. Christianity places mankind on a pedestal as part of that value laden language that I mentioned above. Humans are at the top of a pyramid just below the Angels and God. Science knocks mankind off of that pedestal.

Mr. Sherman asks:

“Why is it that physical scientists can’t say the moon values a rising tide, but life and social scientists can say that we value things?”

That isn’t a hard question to answer. From our ego-centered, self-centered perspective -- from that pedestal we have placed ourselves upon -- we value things that are important to us, that affect us in some way. The tide doesn’t affect the moon. The moon affects the tide. So why should or would the moon place any value on the tide? The moon isn’t even aware that there is such a thing as a tide! A value judgment requires a sense of awareness of differences between things and of the existence of something other than one’s self. His example doesn’t make any sense.

In the next paragraph he says:

“Scientists affirm that living beings and non-living objects are made of the same chemicals and never violate the laws (of) chemistry. Why then do things matter to the living but not to the non-living?

Again that isn’t a hard question to answer. The Living want to keep on living and they value things that affect their ability to do so. The non-living, rocks, tables, don’t need anything to keep on being a rock or a table.

Now this isn’t to say that rocks and tables will always be rocks and tables. Like all things-- living and non-living things, even rocks and tables will eventually get broken down (recycled) into their component parts (elementary chemicals they are made of). They will cease to be a rock or a table just as an animal will cease to be an animal or a plant will cease to be a plant.

Of all living things, human beings have the ability to imagine consequences of their actions. This is part of their sense of awareness. They can imagine that if they do “A” one thing will happen. If they choose not to do “A” and instead choose to do “B” something else will happen.  But, doing so places a “wearisome burden” upon them. They might have to delay gratitude. They have to make a choice, and when they do they are stuck with the consequences of that choice. One such consequence is guilt if they realize they should not do “A” but go ahead and do it anyway. Science puts people in the position of having to make choices AND of having to take responsibility for the choices they make. Religions take the responsibility for making choices off of man and places that responsibility and the consequences with God. Humans just have to follow God’s will as revealed in the Bible or by their religious leaders. Science doesn’t offer man an excuse, an easy way out!

At one point, Mr. Sherman actually answers his own question -- why do scientists fail to explain why anything matters? They don’t need to explain why “any (one) thing” matters because they explain why “everything” matters. He points this out at the beginning of his article, although I guess he doesn’t see the significance of his own statement.

Science is “a package deal ...” “in for a penny in for a pound”. Science is an all or nothing proposition. The Scientist doesn’t explain why any (one) thing matters, or has value because the Scientist realizes that everything matters, and has value. The Scientist demonstrates this by showing how all things are connected, intertwined, and inseparable.

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Scientists aren’t the only ones that have realized this. Hindus with their conception of Brahmin, Taoists with their conception of the Tao, and New Agers with their conception of the Oneness of all things have understood this.

Pagans, Druids and American Indians I think were well on their way to understanding this with their identification of sacred groves, sacred trees, sacred springs, sacred hills and mountains.

I also think that some Christians were well on their way to this understanding. In 1 Corinthians 12:12 Paul says,

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

Paul just didn’t take this insight to its full logical conclusion, as the Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists did: to see that everything is of one body.

I wrote an essay about the difference between divinity with a little “d” and Divinity with a Big “D” in an earlier essay titled “Can ONLY the cross of Christ heal the divide in this nation?” It discusses seeing the divinity in all things -- about seeing that which is most admirable in people and other things.

Scientists see the divinity. They see that which is most admirable in all things. They realize that this places a wearisome burden on people: How can they justify and sanctify their exploitation of and sometimes the destruction of something that is divine without having at least a little sense of guilt!

It is the misguided dualism of Christianity that has separated man from God the good and has led humans to place greater purpose, meaning and value on some things over other things (people, religions, nature, money making ventures, and objects such as cars, McMansions, designer clothes and footwear and handbags and…..).

Is chemistry a more important part of Science than Physics? Sure there are Chemists that think so and Physicists that think the world revolves around them and their Science. BUT the reality is that chemistry needs the physics and physics without the chemistry is simply a bunch of energy particles that can’t do anything. Physics explains how the atoms hold together so they can form the chemical compounds that things are made of and that make things work. Without the physics you don’t have the chemical compounds. And so, everything matters.

In your body, is your Big toe more important than your little toe? The Big toe might like to think that it is, but it isn’t. Is the foot more important than a hand, a leg more important than an arm, a head more important than a stomach? I could go on and on. They are all important parts of one whole. They all have their job to fulfill. Hands can’t cut themselves off from the rest of the organism and still be of any use. Again, everything matters.

Several times a week I take a walk in a nearby nature area. Are the trees more important than the spring wild flowers? Are the squirrels more important than the earthworms? Are the mosquitoes important or are they just a nuisance the forest could live without? Ecologists can show how all the various elements of a forest ecosystem are important for the health of the entire system. If you remove the mosquitoes what will the fish and some of the birds and the bats have to eat? If you lose the birds, Ecologists will tell you that birds help spread seeds, thus enabling new plants to grow, and replace old plants that die out.

What do we need plants for? Plants take in CO2 (one of those greenhouse gases causing global warming) and separate the Carbon from the Oxygen. The carbon goes into making plant material — stems, twigs, roots, leaves (the wood for the table I mentioned earlier). The Oxygen is released into the air and makes it possible for us to breathe. Without oxygen we can’t survive. All the parts, everything matters in the forest.

Foolish humans place a monetary value on the trees and no value on all the rest because they can make money off of the wood in the trees. However, without all the rest there wouldn’t be any trees!

I think it is this realization -- that everything matters; the refusal to value one part more than any other part -- that is Science’s greatest moral virtue! It is NOT Science's Achilles Heel.

AND I admit that is a problem for some folk who like to think that humans are more important, are of greater value, and matter more than all other things. It is particularly a problem for those who believe that they in particular, other followers of their religion, other people like them, are the most important.

But they aren’t. They are just one small part of a great system, where Everything Matters -- even the small parts. This is what Science teaches us. Some folks just refuse to accept the idea because of the burdens and moral obligations it places on them.

In my opinion, this is Science’s greatest gift to humans and to their religions: that everything matters.

Without all the parts, you won’t have a healthy, functioning system. Ultimately, the system will collapse and we wouldn’t be here debating why or whether “any (one) thing” matters. That is why everything matters to me! It is the entire system that enables me to be here, with all the joys, sorrows, frustrations, delights that entails!

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Related essays on this web site that you might find interesting:

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. We have been unable to read the source information of this image from its upper right corner. If you created this image, please let us know so that we can either credit you or remove it. Your choice.
  2. Jeremy Sherman, "Why Do People Cherry-Pick Which Science They Accept? It’s not just the science-denier's fault. It’s also science’s Achilles' heel," Alternet, 2017-APR-22, at: http://www.alternet.org/

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Copyright © 2017 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted on: 2017-MAY-01
Author:
B.A. Robinson
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