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Davidson Loehr

Your friend’s comments are helpful, Ursula. There have been two categorically different discussions going on, presented as scientific — or “scientific”. One is among people who just want to know what’s out there. The other is among people who want to feel connected to things like “the Universe.” The first is scientific. The second is not in any way scientific, though it’s psychological, kind of New Agey, spiritual/religious. In science, it just doesn’t matter at all whether we like what’s out there, or feel at all connected to it. But we evolved as integral parts of local populations, and we do seek patterns and means of relating to them in our environment, so it makes sense that we would extend that through fiction, fantasy, imagination and plain old wishing, to things as unimaginable as a universe we can’t even imagine imagining: it’s just nearly infinitely larger than human scale. What we’re really imagining being connected to isn’t the universe, but the idea of a universe. They sound alike, but aren’t at all. The need for some to insist that unless the universe is “living” they will be missing something they dearly want is one example of this. Scientifically, it wouldn’t matter whether we felt we were missing something important or not. Our psychology, on the other hand, wants or needs some sense of connection. All this seems, to me, simply to be a kind of religious yearning posing as a scientific one. These yearnings to be somehow meaningfully connected to a nearly infinite universe feel like calls coming from those raised within Biblical religions, but who grew away from, or grew bored with, the idea of a supernatural God, while still carrying that yearning for a relationship with “Him” or “It” or “the Universe,” etc.


As we’re trying to get clear definitions, it’s worth becoming more clear about these two categorically different needs and methodologies. As your friend said, scientists — being humans — are among those who often conflate the two, wanting to feel “connected” to the objective reality they spend their professional life studying. The way it is being done in the two discussions going on is by using the same words, but with categorically different meanings: living, conscious, universe, and the rest. This is very common — and equally frustrating — in religion. When it became impossible for theologians to believe in God as a Being — a guy in the sky — they adopted a clever-ish move, by defining God as “Being Itself.” 


It seems one easy way to clarify these different activities is the way we’ve done it for centuries: we use imagination, fiction, plays, novels, fairy tales, folk tales, science fiction, and lots of movies to help us imagine a different sort of reality that can make our dreams, fears, angers, yearnings as real parts of our world. King Midas, David & Goliath, every great imaginative story in history has been part of a noble and respected effort to make our inner values and yearnings seem like real and essential parts of our world. The love of money, carried too far, is dehumanizing. The righteous weak really can defeat the brutally strong sometimes. God created the universe and us, so of course we “fit” together, at least in the mind of God (who loves us). We’d be lonely without our favorite fictions. But we need to keep our facts and fictions distinct, or we’ll let our feelings muddle our thinking. It’s not degrading our fictions to point out that they are wishful but not empirical, not factual. Shakespeare did it, and I don’t remember anyone calling him silly because of it. 


I think another word that can help distinguish between knowing and needing is the word “Certainty.” I’ve mentioned before my love of Wittgenstein’s simple statement that “Certainty is only an attitude.” If we were certain that we were connected to “the Universe,” that wouldn’t mean it was so, just that we had acquired an attitude of certainty. And we’ll generally take certainty over truth. (The histories of both science and religion show this over and over.) But the best way we know to distinguish between them is through empirical, objective knowledge. “Subjective knowledge” confuses the word “knowledge” with need, or wish, or our personal solipsisms. Someone in this discussion said something about how once we know something intuitively, then we “get it” in ways that surpass (or bypass) “mere” knowledge. I’d say it’s worth asking just what we think we “got” that way, other than confused through failing to tell the difference between certainty and truth, faith and fact. 


Well, enough. But thanks to your friend for helping to refocus the two categorically different discussions going on.