Saturday, April 2, 2016

Science Cathedral

I am spending a few days in Columbia, South Carolina, attending the conference Greening of Religions, sponsored by the Cherry Hill Seminary and the University of South Carolina. One attendee noticed a conflict between two views of science that have come up here. On the one hand, science is responsible for the disenchantment of the world that has opened the door to the environmental crisis that we are facing. On the other hand, scientific theories like ecology and evolution show the kinship of humans with other life on the planet, and the vital importance to human well-being of the well-being of those other forms of life. The observation of this conflict didn't elicit much response at the conference but it is central to my own thinking, my own calling.

In my presentation here, I had a few suggestions for ways to improve our thinking about and practice of science. I suggested that in evaluating the validity of a scientific theory, some kind of middle way is needed. Specifically I would suggest that validity should be something like a function from some parametric space describing a possible context of application of the theory, to some probability of satisfactory application. Roughly speaking, each theory has some large or small range of applicability.

My other suggestion was some kind of democratization of science. Sitting outside at lunch after the session at which I presented, I gave this idea a more concrete form. The way that science students really integrate science is through experiments, by repeating the classic experiments of their field. These repeated experiments are a lot like religious rituals, means to recreate core insights of a tradition. This parallel provides a direction that could work very well.

How about a science cathedral? It could consist of a set of chapels, each chapel dedicated to some classic science experiment. Each experiment could be repeated on a regular schedule, every day perhaps for some simple ones, once a year for complex ones. Each experiment could have a liturgy, starting with a description of the scientific question that initially gave rise to the experiment and some background for the people originally involved. Then as the steps of the experiment are executed, further liturgy would explain what is being done. Perhaps attendees could file by meters or flasks or whatever to observe voltages and colors etc. The ritual performers could wear costumes that reflect the time and place of the origin of the experiment.

Part of the program would also be to invite members of the community to deepen their participation, step by step. The idea is that people can really come to understand how the experiments work, to really share the insight about the world.

Of course some rituals would have to incorporate field work. Traditional religion involves parades and pilgrimages, so the parallel is still holding.

This vision is of course much like a science museum. But science museums tend to be rather dead. Science museums do tend more and more to provide hand-on opportunities. Perhaps a key difference is the focus of the science cathedral on the intent of experiments to induce particular insights. Once I was in a museum where Tibetan Buddhist musical instruments were on display, inside glass cases. Often enough I will play such instruments in ritual practice, e.g. at Kunzang Palchen Ling. It was really sad to see these instruments locked away in a case, away from their intended use. The museum could have provided a hands-on opportunity by leaving the instruments out of the case. But it is still a whole different experience to play a gyaling in a ritual, holding the intent in mind.

The more scientific practice gets isolated in ivory towers, the less it will be understood or trusted by the great number of people without the keys to those towers. It is vital for our future that we cultivate ways to bring scientific insights to the people, not just the technological products enabled by science.