General Semantics Advanced Thinking
A System-Discipline Concerned with the Sanity of the Race & the Individual
Science, Religion and God: My Story

by Milton Dawes

A Story About Stories

When we hear the word “story”, among the images that might pop up are those of a parent telling a child a story; children listening attentively to stories in a classroom; stories we read in books; myths, and so on. We also tend to think of stories as fictional – not factual – but fanciful and made up. It is part of my story that we all make up stuff. Our everyday conversations, news reports, books and articles we write, documentaries, etc., are all made up – and as such, they also qualify as stories. In my story, I suggest that we would greatly improve our understanding of ourselves, others, situations we find ourselves in, and the world around us, if we considered the following:

  • Anything we read, hear, think, feel, believe, say, write, etc., qualifies as a story.
  • The stories we make up about someone else’s story is not their story – it is our story, about their story.
  • Stories are not objective reports. Stories will unavoidably be slanted in terms of an individual’s age, their experiences, state of mind, beliefs, concerns, motives, world view, values, social standing, and so on.
  • Whatever else a story is about, it is also a story about the story-teller – representing some of their thoughts, feelings, experiences, understanding, etc.
  • Individuals in the ‘same’ situation will have different stories to tell.
  • Since unavoidably there are gaps in our awareness: No story tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. No story is ever the whole ‘story’.
  • Since we depend on light waves, sound waves, electrochemical impulses etc., for information about ourselves and about the outside world, our stories will always be out of synch with their referents. Things were going on before our arrival. In a sense we are always ‘late’ on the scene.
  • Stories constituted of relatively static words will necessarily be more or less inaccurate as an account of a world of change, process and multi-interactions.
  • As maps are not the territories they represent; as words are not the processes they stand for; stories made up of words and images are not their referents. Stories are about referents, inside and outside one’s head.
  • Stories are sometimes presented to us, as opinions, facts, truths, insights, intuitions, gut feelings, revelations, news, etc.
  • Our stories have endings. We end our stories. But that’s not the end of the ‘story’. Happenings do not start or end, where our stories start and end.
  • In terms of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the observer-observed inter-action, we sometimes affect to some degree, the situations our stories are about. (Listen carefully to what we call ” news”).
  • Metaphors and similes embellish our stories. For clearer understanding, it helps if we don’t confuse metaphors and similes, with descriptions and facts.
  • We benefit a great deal when we take responsibility for the meanings we give to the stories that we read and hear.
  • A Story-telling Form of Life

    One way we could describe our species is that we are, among other characteristics, a story telling form of life. Other life forms, in their own way, ‘tell stories’ – but few of us believe this to be anywhere near as extensive, as varied and as fanciful as the stories we tell. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves – sometimes distressing ourselves with our own stories. We tell others stories about goings on in our lives – our children, our marriage, our pets, our fears, hopes, beliefs, vacations, and so on. We make up and tell each other stories about other story-tellers: We might simply repeat their stories; express admiration for, discredit their stories, and so on. Politicians tell us stories they think we want to hear – hoping that we will believe these stories and elect them (the politicians) to office. Advertisers using words, images, music, and so on, tell us stories extolling the virtues of their clients’ products and services. Revolutionaries tell stories about the good life to come after present leaders are removed. Scientists tell us stories about their discoveries of some relationships they have explored. Theologians tell us stories purportedly about God and His/Her relationship with the world. Philosophers tell us stories, purportedly about the nature of reality, values, meanings, and so on. Many religious leaders tell us stories purportedly about ultimate realities; about God; and His directions for ways we should behave with each other. Some individuals tell stories about their encounter with God. Authors, play-rights, poets, film-makers and others, tell us stories which we often fail to perceive as stories about ourselves.

    Now politicians, religious leaders, advertisers and other story tellers (including ourselves) do not introduce their piece by saying “This is my story …” Could it be that they/we suspect that we/others would ‘listen’ differently? In my story, I visualize a society with an evolved education system, where teachers at all levels would recognize, and announce themselves, as “story-tellers“. They would help students to evaluate what they read and hear in terms of “degrees of fantasy” and “degrees of accurate representation”. They would advise students to become more aware of the stories they tell themselves; and the stories they tell to others. And they would also remind students that there are times to reserve judgment on a story.

    Sunday School Stories

    In my Sunday school days I heard stories about an all-merciful, all-knowing and all-powerful God. This story made little sense to me even then. I had many questions. I couldn’t reconcile an omniscient, omnipotent God with ever-present human misery, whether from natural causes, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, or our mistreatment of one another. I reasoned that such an all-knowing, all-powerful God would know, (should know) that many of His children (The notion of a female God was not current then) would behave very badly to each other. And furthermore, I thought “What kind of loving earthly father would give his children the knowledge to make guns and bombs and poisonous gases to use on each other? What kind of loving father would allow millions of his children to die of starvation? What kind of loving father would send a son to be crucified to save sinners – sinners who could have been created without sin in the first place? For what reasons should I expect less from an all-knowing all-merciful God?” God, I was told created everything. So I wondered who created God. I was told He was always there. I reasoned “Well if He was always there, why doesn’t this reasoning apply to the Universe? Couldn’t the Universe have always been there?” I also wanted to know who created the devil? And if the devil was the source of evil – why did God set this powerful being against us weak humans? The answer I got to these questions when I dared to ask my Sunday School teacher was “God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform“: a very nice sounding story, but far from satisfying my curiosity: It just didn’t make sense then, or now. A friend once wrote at the end of his term paper “ “. His professor wrote back, “And too many unquestioned answers.” I liked that.

    ‘Renormalized’ Stories about God

    “Renormalization” in quantum theory involves the removal of troublesome infinities in some field equations by a redefinition of parameters. I find this so apt: Can you think of a more infinite variable than our notions of God? Over the years I have read numerous neo-orthodox stories, re-conceived stories and process philosophy stories. God was no longer all-powerful but limited and voluntarily self-limited. God now suffers with us and His suffering affects us. He couldn’t be held responsible for ‘evil’. God was influenced by events and didn’t know everything – could not know in advance. We were co-creators with God; who is like the composer of a still unfinished symphony, experimenting, improvising, and expanding on a theme. I read that evil is inescapable in the long process of creation and that God must wait on the responses of nature and humanity. I read that God changes in response to what we do. Some stories claim that God needs the world in order to be fully actualized. Others claim that God does not need the world to be fully actualized. Would you believe, I have actually read and heard stories about God’s purposes and intentions. Now I ask you: If we don’t even know ourselves our children, or our next door neighbor, how in heaven’s name can we claim to know the intentions and purposes of God – whether a re-defined God or my Sunday School God? In my story I would characterize our species as “the arrogant story- telling ones”.

    ‘God’ as a Function

    As imaginative human beings we can all make up as good a story about God as others can. So here is part of my story – actually it’s not about God: it’s a story about stories I have heard and read, purportedly about God. My story has a mathematical basis. God – more accurately “the notion of God” – is a function of human awe, fear, curiosity, imagination, hope, belief, knowledge, reasoning, search for meaning, values, and so on, as expressed at particular times in our cognitive evolution. Change the independent variables, and the diverse notions of God change. As times go by, I expect our notion of God to keep evolving. However a time-invariant thread connecting these diverse variables is “human reasoning”. Our beliefs, knowledge, intuitions, speculations, ethics, values, hopes, fears, meanings, faith, and so on, all involve reasoning. In other words, I believe that we create God and gods in our own image based on our current knowledge, beliefs, and reasoning skills. You can check this out for yourself. Do a little survey. Ask ten individuals to tell you about God or their notion of God. Compare if their stories are exactly like your or exactly like any other. Ask each one how s-he came to believe what they believed.

    Models of Reasoning

    If our fears, curiosity, hopes, values, and so on, involve reasoning, then it seems to me that disciplines that represent models of successful reasoning could help us critically evaluate the stories we hear about anything – including stories that are supposed to be about God. In my story, science and mathematics represent two of our best models of reasoning. They are considered “best” in terms of their usefulness in helping us to make predictions. A scientific theory is so far one of the best reasoning based explanations we have of certain goings on in the world we know, and mathematics plays a very important part in scientific reasoning. Scientific theories are not considered infallible, but tentative – the best explanations until more inclusive theories are formulated. Since we have to interact with other more and less dynamic structures in the world; and since we are not omnipotent, a system of reasoning that helps us better understand ourselves; encompassing some basic structures and happenings in the world; our relationship with what’s going on in and around us; that helps us anticipate and thus avoid many dangers; has great survival value and seems very much worth our while to emulate.

    Our everyday reasoning processes involve observation, awareness, wonder, memory, curiosity, association, intuition, inference, generalization, speculation, explanation, thinking and feeling, among other variables. A major difference between reasoning in present day science, and reasoning in our everyday life, and in many religions is this: In our everyday reasoning and in many religions, reasoning usually stop at fantasy, speculation, explanations and generalizations. Explanations become conclusions, and conclusions beget attitudes and behaviors. In science, reasoning does not stop at explanations and generalizations (hypotheses and theories) but is an ongoing activity. Some features of reasoning in science involve observation, curiosity, hypothesis, experiment, theory, prediction, peer revue, heuristics, imagination, among others, and I think it worth repeating: Science does not stop at explanations.

    Scientists as scientists, continue on from their hypotheses (initial thoughts, feelings about, intuitions, etc.) to experiments; and from experiments to the higher levels of generalization and explanations called “theories”. Theories beget predictions; predictions lead to further observations, and if predictions are not corroborated it is not the Universe that is considered defective but the story, i.e., the theory. So the process continues with new hypotheses, more experiments, a more inclusive theory, more predictions, and so on. Another very important characteristic of reasoning in science is this: Scientists in most instances, focus less on what something is, and pay more attention to how it behaves: and since things behave differently in different situations – a more up to date way of looking at things.

    A Heuristic Approach

    Present day scientists do not claim that their story is about everything. They no longer claim that they are engaged in a search for truth. It seems to me that in scientific reasoning, we have one area where we continue to get smarter and smarter in our endeavors to understand some, but not all features of the Universe. How does this come about? I offer this explanation: it primarily has to do with the “heuristic approach”. Heuristics is about using the information, knowledge, understanding, discoveries, etc., that emerge from our explorations, experiments and experiences to guide us towards further experiments and explorations, more knowledge, more understanding other discoveries, and so on. The heuristic approach is a very powerful reasoning and learning tool, incorporating experiment and feedback. Using the heuristics approach helps us not only to improve our knowledge and understanding in scientific activity, but can also be used to help us improve our understanding of, and improve our skills in any situation that we choose to explore.

    Critical Reasoning not Promoted

    Over the centuries, this critical reasoning and heuristic approach, combined with the technologies it has spawned, has been instrumental in permitting humans to walk and drive around on the moon and to photograph the earth from the moon. But it has also created nuclear bombs, land mines and genetic engineering. Unfortunately the critical reasoning and heuristic approach that constitutes science; critical evaluating tools that could help us become less confused in our thinking and feelings about things, has not yet become a part of our educational training and conditioning of our everyday thinking, attitudes and behavior. The media grandly promotes scientific discoveries: but the critical reasoning approach that contributed to these discoveries has not yet been recognized, appreciated and promoted as being “good” for us. And scientists do not engage advertisers to extol the virtues of their critical reasoning approach. Our politicians and teachers do not encourage us through their stories to experiment with adding a scientific approach to our other ways of reasoning – an approach which I believe would improve our problem-solving, decision-making, communication, imaginative, learning, and many other skills. Incidentally, in my story, it obviously does not suit politicians, large corporations, and religious leaders, to promote reasoning that might result in people becoming better informed, and thus more able to make their own determinations. That is to say , we would not be so easily influenced and deceived, controlled and managed. It might not be so – but remember – this is my story.

    The critical reasoning approach of science has not been applied to our political, social economic and international problems. However, I predict that this will not continue for very much longer. Although current scientific explorations are limited to certain phenomena, sooner or later scientists will start to explore areas they have not so far had the courage, interest, or societal support to investigate. If scientific reasoning helps us to learn more about ourselves-in-the Universe; and religious beliefs and practices continue to exist; we can reasonably predict that scientific reasoning will eventually be applied to the investigation of religious beliefs and practices.

    Faith

    For those who see science as being in competition with, or as a threat to religion, the perceived threat could be a concern about a possible loss of the power, influence and respect traditionally accorded to religious institutions and religious authorities. (The story of Galileo and the Church authorities is but one example of such a threat.) Further the threat perceived could also be the result of an intuitive sense that scientific reasoning is on demonstrably firmer grounds, involving theories, predictions and corroboration, than the reasoning behind religious faith. Another factor could be the awareness that scientific theories usually provide verifiable explanations for many phenomena, that in earlier times were only explained by some religious authority; or were simply accepted in some religions as fact, truth and revelations. It is also a fact that many people live their lives without any religious belief whatsoever. (Whether we are aware of this or not, we all live according to some beliefs – but these are not necessarily classified as “religious”.) On the other hand, the products of scientific reasoning can be found on us, sometimes in us, and all around us – in our homes, buildings, bridges, on land, underground, on the sea, in the sea, in the air and in outer space.

    In both science and religion we find “faith” – but with some important differences.  (It is important that we remember that when we talk about “science” and “religion”, we are talking about humans engaged in behaviors that we label scientific, and behaviors we label religious). In present day science, objects of investigation are there for other scientists to explore. Certainly one electron is not another – but behavior patterns attributed to electrons are predictable to a very high degree of accuracy. In many religions we find personal Gods, as well as the Gods of theologians. But personal Gods and the Gods of theologians seem to have differing characteristics and do not ‘behave’ in predictable ways. So considerable faith is required to accommodate these differences. In science there is faith in the intelligibility of the Universe; faith in the scientific reasoning process, and in our ability to use this process to increase our understanding of the Universe. Scientists value their theories, only to the degree that they correspond with observable phenomena.

    In science, internal fantasies, speculations, opinions, intuitions, faith and theories, are matched against observable supporting evidence. This validation process is fundamental in science. In our everyday life, in our political behavior, and in many religions, our faith is usually in the rightness and truth of our conclusions. However in our everyday behavior, and in many religions, critical appraisal, and questioning of accuracy in our stories is almost always missing. Our fantasies, gut feelings, speculations and intuitions, are usually considered as “truths and revelations”. And as far as the stories I have read, the heuristic approach is not a significant feature of religious practices. Often, instead of recognizing another’s story about “truth”, “revelations”, “fact of the matter”, as their story, we adopt a wide range of defensive and often offensive behaviors – sometimes even killing each other – to promote our own individual “truths” and “revelations”. It is worth noting that to date, there is only one science; and no war has ever been declared by one group of scientists against other scientists, as a way of defending, proving, or imposing their theories on others. In my story, in our everyday behavior and in many religions, we have no universally accepted criteria for critical appraisal of stories. And, except in the fields of science and mathematics, there is no presently agreed method for differences of opinions to be evaluated.

    Finding ourselves in an infinitely large Universe, with our insatiable human curiosity, powerful imagination, and what Lonergan calls “our unrestricted desire to know”; we complement that which we don’t know with myths, hope and faith.

    Labeling our Experiences

    We have experiences to which we give names; and we make up stories about our experiences: One person might label her-his experience “mystic”, another “awesome”, another “beautiful”, “puzzling”, “prophetic”, “religious”, and so on. The point I am making here is this: The label we attach to our experience is not the actual experience. When, in the laboratory of living, we forget that “the word is not the thing-process it labels”, much confusion arises whether in daily life or in the science laboratory. I particularly like Nicholas Lash’s question which I came across in John Polkinghorne’s book Reason and Reality: “…if some people find themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider to be God, how do they know that it is God with whom they are in relation…..?” It’s quite valid to give names to our experiences. For me the problem arises when we manufacture characteristics we have not experienced, and/or observe, and then in our stories about our experiences, assert this to be fact, truth or revelation. This is part of my story. As you will have noticed it is heavily biased in favor of valuing scientific reasoning. But be assured, I am ready to hear the stories of others who do not share this view.

    Standards Guide Our Reasoning

    Whether we are aware of this or not, our thinking, reasoning and the stories we tell, are all based on some standard, set of values, assumptions, beliefs, guidelines, metaphysics, etc. My reasoning follows guidelines based on my interpretation of the writings of two great (in my opinion) thinkers/reasoners – Bernard J.F. Lonergan, S.J., and Alfred Korzybski, the founder of a system called General Semantics. Lonergan’s story can be read in his books, Insight – A Study of Human Understanding, and Method in Theology, among other works. Korzybski’s story can be found in his books Manhood of Humanity and Science and Sanity, and his other works. Now permit me a personal question: Do you know what standards, values, beliefs, etc., direct your thinking and reasoning? One reason you might find this important to know is this: Our standards, values, beliefs and so on work like filters and selectors of our experiences. They influence and direct our thinking, feelings, reasoning, and the stories we make up. Imagine you are wearing blue tinted glasses (and you are not aware of this). Concurrently, a friend is wearing yellow tinted glasses (s-he is also not aware of this). Do you think there will be differences in the way each of you experience things; what each one of you see; the way each of you reason about what you see; the way each of you think and feel about things; the meanings you give; the beliefs you hold; and the stories you tell about the world?

    Resolving Conflicts

    We have scales, rulers, and clocks as universal standards, to help us minimize conflicts that would arise in our interactions with each other if everyone made their their own guesses about weights, distances and time. Since a common factor in both science and religion is reasoning, it seems to me that conflicts will persist until scientists, theologians and others find a reasoning standard that is acceptable to all. (In real life, this might not be possible; but hey, in a story, anything is possible.) Conflict between science and religion, (and this can be extended to conflicts in general) might be better resolved when both parties in the discussion recognize that each one is looking at the world through different filters, using different measuring tools, with different assumptions, and valuing different reasoning approaches. It is worth emphasizing that in my story, there is no conflict between science and religion that does not include humans. Conflicts arise among individuals and groups; and arise among story-tellers, when they evaluate their respective stories as being inconsistent. Conflicts arise between individuals and groups when they are unaware that their stories are told from different frames of reference, based on different value systems. Conflicts arise, when parties are unable to expand their reasoning horizons and embrace the higher viewpoints that would enable them to transcend their individual and group biases. When our stories seem contradictory, it is not the rest of the Universe that needs adjustments, but us story-tellers who do not see what we think, feel, believe, know, say, write, value, etc. as stories. It seems to me that one way we could resolve conflicts in any area of our lives, is to hold in high esteem, the proposal that no story, is ever the whole ‘story’; and that we can always re-write our stories.

    In Love with the Universe?

    In love with the Universe? Nah: It’s too big – And too much to comprehend. There is too much about it that I don’t know, and don’t understand. And there is too much about it I know I will never know and understand. There is too much I don’t understand about myself as a center of conscious and sub-conscious activities; too much I don’t understand about others, as centers of conscious and sub-conscious activities; too much I believe that we don’t understand about how we understand. Some believe it started with a bang and that it is expanding. Expanding into what? I ask. And if something started with a bang, then there must have been something existing before the bang. I do not accept the Big Bang theory. I think it is based on at least three confusions: (1) that cosmic bodies speeding away from us means that the rest of the Universe is expanding. (2) that the behavior of the very small part of the Universe observed is representative of the whole rest of the Universe. (3) that the red shift observed can mean only one thing – expansion.

    My feeling and thinking about the Universe has more to do with unappeasable awe: Was it always there? Is it infinitely large? How could it be so? How could it be not so? Does it have boundaries? If so: What is outside such boundaries?. Would the outside not still be the Universe? Was it created? If so, by whom (or what) ? Then there is amazement at its simplicity and complexity; admiration and humbleness before its grandeur, intricacies and diversity; curiosity about its infinite numbers of operations and inter-relationships; and the confidence in human ability to understand at least some of its characteristics. I deeply respect and appreciate its predictability and intelligibility at least in some areas. I enjoy those brief moments when I recognize a feeling of being in the flow with some of its rhythms. But I must not forget the moments of anxiety and fear. The Universe is everywhere through and around me. I am a self-conscious, self-observing, story-telling part of it. It is not a malevolent Universe – as far as I can conclude – but except for some humans – it also uncaring caring. So I know that it’s up to me – up to us, to learn some of its ways, by being alert and attentive.

    I have often asked myself “What is going on when someone says s-he “Loves God”? For me love (my notion of love) cannot be divorced from knowledge. However many do not accept this, cannot even consider it to be important or relevant, and this does not deter their “loving”. I ask myself: How can I love something or someone that I know nothing about? And if my knowledge covers perhaps only say, twenty percent of what could be known – how can I then know that the other eighty percent is lovable? In brief, I put “my love” on a scale in that I am likely to love more, if I know more. And I strongly believe that the critical reasoning of present day science provides us with one of our best reasoning tools for learning and understanding more about ourselves – including the experiences that some of us call “experience of God”.

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