Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Reveling in the Light: Reflections at MidWinter (2 February 2010)

It is time to revel in the waxing of day light; the lengthening of the days!
This evening as I was walking home after work I noticed just how much lighter it is at 6 PM than it was a month ago, and was thus reminded that we are at Mid-Winter; that time of the year commemorated in myths and stories as a time for ‘awakening’ as the light of the sun grows ‘stronger.’  Standing about half way between Winter’s Solstice and the Vernal Equinox, I turn to reflections on the symbols, stories and rituals that have been used to mark this turnstile in the Wheel of the Year, in both Pagan and Christian traditions.   The first days of February have long been occasioned by the lighting of fires, hearths and candles.  It has been connected with spiritual awakening; waking up and turning toward the light that is growing day by day—in the hopes of wisening in our ways.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Distinguishing Science and Naturalism (1 February 2010)

A couple weeks ago I was listening to a lecture* on Newton and his Three Laws, and was struck by a point the lecturer made concerning the difference between the 'speculations' of ancient philosophers and the discoveries of modern science since the Renaissance.  He said that while the ancients sometimes hit upon ideas that we now know to be correct – for instance, the idea of atoms being the constituents of matter – they didn't know that these ideas were correct in the way that we do now.

Ancient philosophers did engage in observations and descriptions of Nature as experienced, and some even attempted to set up demonstrations of their ideas, but by and large they were not committed to experimentation as we understand it today.  They explored the world through logic and reasoning, and in the process delineated the various possible options on a wide range of topics.  What sets our knowledge today apart from that of the ancients is the degree to which we have confirmed our hypotheses by experiment.

I was struck by this distinction, as it made me think about two 'thrusts' in the earthen spirituality and philosophy I've been trying to work out over the last few years.  I often speak of being a 'naturalist,' and have been trying to define what that means.  I'm also deeply invested in science as the most fruitful process we have of discovering the 'nature' of Nature.  I accept the 'revelations' of science (those things that have been 'proven') as grounding my life-philosophy; my spiritual praxis and the way in which I experience the world and relate to others.

How are Naturalism and Science to be distinguished from one another?

When I think of Naturalism, I am reminded of individuals like Henry David Thoreau and John James Audubon, John Muir and Anna Comstock Botsford.  For me, these people represent one way of engaging with the natural world; with 'what is.'  They go out to experience Nature in all of its wonder and strangeness.  They observe, describe and reflect on what they have experienced.  Sometimes – as with Thoreau's The Maine Woods – the result of this engagement with Nature is an edifying discourse on our relationship to Nature's wonders, as well as a catalog of the living things the naturalist experienced.  At other times, the results of the Naturalist's experiences challenges our presuppositions and alters the way we think of Nature or some aspect of it, as with Farley Mowat's classic, Never Cry Wolf.

Science can start off from a naturalist's point of view – experiencing, observing, describing, reflecting – but goes a significant step further.  The scientific mind wants to test suppositions, examine reflections and intuitions, and sort out the actual 'nature' of Nature.  Science can also start with an idea, or with a problem – practical or theoretical – and reach significant conclusions.  Science begins with curiosity, and ends with – the scientist hopes – a better understanding of how things really work, what is actually happening around us in the part of the world that is 'given' – i.e., that which we can't change just by thinking about it differently – and why things are the way they are.

Science and Naturalism are not mutually exclusive; many naturalists have had a scientific training, while scientists begin by practicing the basic disciplines of experiencing, observing, describing, and reflecting on Nature.  The key difference, I think – and this is what the lecturer I was listening to (the physicist Steven Pollock) pointed out – is that the scientist does experiments.   He or she will have an idea about how something 'is' or how it 'works,' and then work up a way – an experiment – that will either prove or disprove it.

This seems so obvious; but sometimes the most obvious things are the hardest to articulate!  As I continue to develop an earthen spirituality, this distinction between Science and Naturalism will no doubt come into play.

*[The lecture was a part of The Great Ideas of Classical Physics course from The Teaching Company.]