Reason, Nature, Experience and Data, and What’s So

by Donald Schell

Part II. more on the “three-legged stool”

I just read four very different books in quick succession that each seemed to add something to the question of how we know the truth, how much truth we can know, and how we blind ourselves to the truth when we do that instead of knowing it.

As I read, I kept asking myself –

What is reason?

How do we test conclusions or trust the value of anything we do?

Whose witness do we trust?

Why do we listen to one another?

In their very different ways and considering very different material, the four books each contributed to a practice of reasoned reflection that values evidence, that’s holistic, and that is inevitably relational.

The New Atheists in their arguments with doctrinaire theology would reduce all religious discourse to irrationality. Richard Dawkins and other of the New Atheists appear anecdotally in Rupert Sheldrake’s Science Set Free, 10 Paths to New Discovery. Sheldrake is a distinguished British biologist. Some of the New Atheists are his scientific colleagues. And he faults them for lack of scientific rigor or genuine inquiry.

Sheldrake argues that science in the public forum (and the simple matter of what research gets funded) reduce complex questions and working hypotheses to matters of doctrine. In his book and in several lectures and papers he’s offered around the book, Sheldrake sketches the ten “dogmas” –

Sheldrake, a well-established research biologist, challenges ten scientific dogmas –

- that nature is mechanical

– that matter is unconscious

– that the laws of nature are fixed

– that the total amount of matter and energy is constant

– that nature is purposeless

– that biological inheritance is material

– that memories are stored as material traces in the brain

– that the mind is in the brain

– that telepathy and other psychic phenomena are illusory and

– that mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.

With each of these ten “dogmas,” some scientists will tell you that these ten items are certainties (or if they say “virtual certainties,” they seem to mean that they ought not be questioned). Challenging each “dogma,” Sheldrake offers solid experimental evidence, data, that simply asks us to reconsider (frame experiments to gather more data) whether these ten fixed principles are actually true. And Sheldrake insists that scientific knowledge (and knowledge’s useful partners in admitted scientific ignorance and in scientific curiosity) loses its legitimacy when it refuses to reconsider settled principle where new data doesn’t fit and can’t be interpreted away. Sheldrake reminds us that a scientific method of inquiry must remain constantly open to – experience – new observations, new data that ask to be included and integrated into the conversation and made part of the next moment’s knowing.

While Sheldrake had me thinking about reason, reasoning and how we know, and, (from a faith perspective) continuing respect for what we don’t know, I heard Maureen Corrigan’s NPR review of Henry Wiencek’s book, Master of the Mountain, Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves.

Wiencek writes a well-documented intellectual biography that addresses again the question of the great Enlightenment teacher and theoretician of Freedom being a slaveholder and active apologist of slavery among his slaveholding peers. Jefferson’s best writing is electrifying and his vision for valuing all humanity in freedom a legacy for which we can be grateful. His reasoning seemed inconsistent on the issue (and practice) of slavery. Listening to the review, I thought, this is the same Jefferson who spent his evenings in the White House crafted a Jesus who made more sense to him but cutting and editing the Gospels with scissors and tape. I was eager to read the troubling evidence of the teacher of Freedom’s practice as a slave-owner to see how he squared his thinking and eloquent writing about Freedom with his practice as “Master of the Mountain,” the owner, builder and director of Monticello. What do “sense” and Reason mean if we listen deeply to Jefferson and watch him at work?

Wiencek’s book shows a man whose careful thinking can offer us elegant prose and well-argued progressive opinions in one discourse and rationalize completely different policy and counsel in another discourse. What he says depends on who he’s talking to. To his New England colleagues among the Founders of the nation and his French Enlightenment friends, Jefferson spoke of the glories of freedom and lamented how much he abhorred slavery. Jefferson’s passionate advocacy of freedom and democracy originally led him to write a whole abolitionist section into the Declaration of Independence. Inheriting many slaves (some of them mixed race descendants of his father-in-law) and managing a great estate touched Jefferson’s thinking. He continued to be a theoretician of freedom in political discourse in America and in Europe, but, as a practical slaver, he claimed African-ancestry slaves couldn’t be taught significant skills and were unable to take care of themselves, even though he also boasted that his cook and cabinetmaker (and others of his slaves) were probably the most skilled in America. To his fellow slave owners, Jefferson was a theoretician and apologist for slavery. When a young neighboring landowner resolved to sell his holdings, free the slaves, and journey with them to Ohio where he’d buy land for himself and each of them, Jefferson tried desperately to dissuade him.

The book is a painful but fascinating read. Reason and rationalization live in close alliance. I was reading to understand more of the Enlightenment’s understanding of Reason. For Jefferson at least, the logic and rationality the Enlightenment proclaimed our highest function allowed him as a slave-owner to live in luxury tended by his wife’s enslaved half-siblings and his own offspring. What trapped him in contradiction wasn’t a failure of thought but a failure of heart. He couldn’t acknowledge the giftedness of his own children or love them as a father and keep them enslaved. So he closed his heart. Like of any of us, what Jefferson knew “by reason” could silence moral reflection and self-scrutiny when we fail to think (as Parker Palmer frames it) “with the mind in the heart.”

So, is “thinking with the mind in the heart” advocating for pure intuition, for letting feelings define our moral thinking? No, the useful question is what kinds of thinking (and “kinds” is deliberately plural) free us from prejudice and folly.

My wife works for an International NGO doing HIV/AIDS work in Africa. We’re familiar with the question of whether foreign assistance actually contributes to positive change. Partly, the answer rests with the heart and morals – “we’ve got to try!” Data does seem to support real change, at least sometimes, but some efforts prove massively ill-conceived and misdirected. Sometimes foreign assistance causes bigger problems than it solves. How do we know how to act? Unexpectedly those were exactly the questions I heard Abjihit Banerjee and Ester Duflo addressing on NPR’s program, Planet Money.

Banerjee and Duflo are Harvard and M.I.T. economists. Their book, which I’m now grateful to have read, is, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Like Rupert Sheldrake, they argue for testing results against data. The questions they’re addressing are questions of doing good. What kinds of help actually give people the means to improve the quality of their lives? Is micro-lending effective? Does it unleash the entrepreneurial genius of the poor? If it’s effective, what are its limitations? Should we invest in education of the poor? What makes kids stay in school beyond a year or two? Just how does education make a difference? Like Sheldrake, they’re writing in territory that’s dense with dogma – economists with their theories of human nature and the value or dilemma of capital making broad, contradictory statements about what’s possible and what works. Repeatedly, they find that actual systematic study of results contradicts the principled generalizations. Change and the possibility to do good are real, complex, and both require steady attention to specific goals and specific means of implementation. Reading their work, I had several instances of my own settled, “of course we know…” overturned.

Finally, I just finished reading Andrew Solomon’s Far from the Tree, Parents, Children and the Search for Identity. The book is both challenging and exhilarating. This one and Rupert Sheldrake’s were the two of these four books which kept me thinking, “I wish more Episcopalians would read this book.” Andrew Solomon, gay and a non-practicing Jew, writes about parenting, identity politics and identity communities, and family’s and extended communities’ practice of inclusion. The book is dense with the storytelling from Solomon’s ten years of in-depth interviews and staying in conversation with families over time, his ten years of review of the research into how families included (or marginalized or rejected) their children who were gay, deaf, dwarves, had Downs Syndrome, were disabled, prodigies, children born of rape, were criminals, or transgendered, and his ten years of study and reflection on how science and medicine, education, sociology, and policy have attempted to address each of these different extraordinary identities.

This is a big book – 700 pages, and each chapter on specific difference is fifty to seventy-five pages long. Some of the stories he tells are hair-raising. Some are as revealing of courage and love as anything I’ve read anywhere. Solomon listens with remarkably little judgment. He’s more determined to sustain compassion and listen for understanding than he is to find answers. But, almost despite himself, he does come to one answer,

“I do not accept competitive models of love, only additive ones. My journeys toward a family and this book have taught me that love is a magnifying phenomenon – that much as loving one’s family can be means of loving God, so the love that exists within any family can fortify the love of all families. I espouse reproductive libertarianism, because, when everyone has the broadest choice, love itself expands. The affection my family have found in one another [his family is two gay fathers with children, and he tells all the stories of how and with whom] is not a better love, but it is another love, and just as species diversity is crucial to sustain the planet, this diversity strengthens the ecosphere of kindness. The road less traveled by, as it turns out, leads to pretty much the same place.”

I carry my experience of these four books back to liturgy and to my daily reading of the Bible. Each teaches something essential about knowing, about the human heart, about how we care for one another, about how we listen. The readers of Scripture and church teachers and preachers I trust most are in ongoing conversations and inquiries like these. The ways of nature and of wholly embodied reason and mind have much to teach us of who God is and who we are.

What are you reading? Whose inquiries and discoveries outside our community of faith shapes your vision of God and God’s work healing and reconciling humankind?

Read Part 1 here.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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3 Comments
  1. Continuing to think about our diverse ways of knowing (thinking, sensing, reasoning, etc.), hearing a cantor this morning at liturgy sing from Stephen Mitchell’s lovely paraphrase of Psalm 19 resonated in a new way:

    God’s universe is perfect

    awing the mind.

    God’s truth is subtle

    baffling the intellect.

    God’s law is total,

    quickening the breath.

    God’s compassion is fathomless

    refreshing the soul.

    God’s justice is absolute,

    lighting up the eyes.

    God’s love is radiant,

    rejoicing the heart –

    more precious than the finest gold

    sweeter than honey from the comb.

  2. Baba Yaga

    Responding very quickly here – it’s Monday morning!

    Donald, what strikes me initially in this second essay is your willingness to read outside your discipline; to read books that challenge how you think. My observation is that most conversations – even here at the Cafe – are conducted under the assumption that people share a common system of beliefs and values. As a culture, we’ve gotten very comfortable with the idea that we should get our info and form our opinions guided by media that don’t challenge us too much. Maybe we’re reading Daily Kos, maybe we’re watching Fox News – but darn few of us do both. Entering an alien epistemic system is just…. too…. creepy!

    Sheldrake seems to be writing about epistemic closure in scientific inquiry, but I think it’s curious that in your summary he doesn’t mention the problem of ethics. What concerns the scientists I know is how to socialize scientists to follow the rules of their discipline: to do research ethically, to analyze results ethically, to report results ethically. Scientists, like all human beings, are subject to the same acutely human, limited vision that you note in Thomas Jefferson: there’s an abstract system of values, and it’s great, but let’s not let it shine too hard on the immediate concerns of what we think we need.

    That’s a natural, unexamined, deeply human way to think – and the kind of thinking that dominates so much of our struggle with climate change.

    I wonder if one important role for interfaith encounter is making room in our culture again to look at differences – to step outside our media-buttressed cocoons and get some fresh air.

    Pamela Grenfell Smith

    Bloomington, Indiana

  3. Pamela,

    Yes, to everything you wrote, plus this – I’m continuing to explore and re-imagine what “the Mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people” means if, as Gregory of Nyssa says (and Thomas Traherne and Julian of Norwich and others may imply), the Body of Christ is all humanity. Reason (in the fullest expression of it) is the foundation of our conversation outside the dynamic and language and principles of scripture and tradition. Listening to these significant, challenging reflections from a variety of sources, and I know others could name other comparable sources and inspiration, we find ourselves in the position of learning of the work of God from those outside church language and assumptions (“the Holy Spirit blows where it will”), and our own understanding of the reason/experience leg of Hooker’s stool gets refined and reformed, so we participate in our formational and theological and spiritual work together in church differently.

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