Through What Lenses Do We Learn?

Through What Lenses Do We Learn?

How do different lenses affect the way we see the world? How do our perspectives filter what we can know? And how do we move beyond literal-mindedness to gain more humility and appreciation of different kinds of knowledge?

As part of Sinai and Synapses’ series “More Light, Less Heat,” Reverend Mark Goodman and Rex Jung, Ph.D. share how our perspectives and beliefs influence the way we understand the world. What do we see, and how? What do we not see, and can we gain enough humility to recognize our limitations?

Reverend Mark Goodman is a current Sinai and Synapses Fellow, and is Dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also has an advanced degree in botany, and is also an amateur astronomer.  He maintains his interest in botany through membership in the Botanical Society of America and introducing his parishioners to field botany and the evolutionary relationships between plant groups in occasional forays into the local Sandia Mountains. He also participates in the annual Evolution Weekend, an opportunity to focus on the relationship between scientific thinking and theological exploration.

Here, he talks about how different lenses — both physical and metaphorical — inform his learning about religion and science.

Rex Jung received his training in clinical psychology, specializing in neuropsychology, at the University of New Mexico, in Albuquerque. He has been on the Neurosurgery faculty since 2008, where he splits his time between neuroimaging research and holding neuropsychology clinics with neurosurgical patients. He studies both brain disease and what the brain does well—a field of research known as “positive neuroscience.” His research is designed to relate behavioral measures, including intelligence, personality, and creativity, to brain function and structure in healthy, neurological, and psychiatric subjects. He has published research articles across a wide range of disciplines, including traumatic brain injury, lupus, schizophrenia, intelligence, creativity, and genius. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment for the Arts, DARPA, and the John Templeton Foundation.

Here, he speaks about the need for humility in learning, especially surrounding questions of falsifiability:


Rev. Mark Goodman

Hello, my name is Mark Goodman and the dean of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral in Albuquerque. I also hold an advanced degree in botany, having studied systematic botany and evolutionary biology.

Throughout my life, there have been those two opposing forces, those two opposing worldviews — religion on the one hand, science on the other hand. And for much of my life, I saw one or the other as holding the totality of truth about our understanding of the world and of the universe. When I was younger, my understanding was that religion was the source of that truth. As I learned more and more about science, especially physical sciences, I came to the conclusion that it was science, in fact, that was the depository of all truth about the universe.

However, when I went to seminary to study to become a priest, suddenly my worldview expanded, and I came to understand that, in fact, the two are not opposed but they are interlocked and are mutually consistent one with another.

It is like looking through one lens to see a certain view of the universe, and another lens to see another view of the universe. But in fact, when you look through a compound lens, such as this one, and you look at the intricate details of a flower, like this amaryllis, on the outside, you see its beauty, and that tells you something about the God who created the laws of the universe, the laws of evolution, that caused this flower to evolve and come to be.

When you look at it through a lens, suddenly you see intricate detail, and through details of morphology and anatomy, chemical and genetic markers, you can determine, then, the place of this plant in the overall evolutionary history of the world of plants.

And so those two views, together, give us an holistic view of that plant.

The same thing can be true of the universe. So you look at a telescope, such as this telescope, and you look into the heavens, you see the beauty of the stars unfold before you, the galaxies, nebulae, star clusters. But you cal also look in great detail and determine the composition through spectrographs of those bodies and study them in intricate detail so that you see their scientific side and the beauty of their creation, as well. Both those go together to form that complete picture and understanding of the universe.

Perhaps, in fact, instead of thinking of two lenses, we can think of one substance that allows you in fact, to see two different views at once. The crystal calcite, this rhombohedral crystal has a certain chemical composition and a certain form. And you can look through it, and you can see certain shapes through it, but when you put it down on a line, in fact you don’t see one line any more, you see two lines.

That’s really what my understanding of looking at the world is like. It’s looking through that intersection of science and religion, so that we don’t see one truth, but in fact two truths, which come together to give us that intricate picture, that wonderful detail, that wonderful view of beauty of the created universe.

The one question I still continue to struggle with, however, is that question of God’s interaction with His creation. Because we know there are natural laws that govern the processes of the very large, from supergalaxies, superclusters of galaxies, down to the very small, the subatomic particles that react with one another in quantum ways.

But how does God interact with those, and how does God continue to interact with humanity?

I don’t really hold to that 18th  century notion of the idea of the remote clockmaker — God who winds up the clock and then sets it down and lets it run all by itself. I have a sense that God continues to interact with the world, not in any miraculous way necessarily, not in a way that abrogates natural law, but in way that is consistent with natural law, in a way that moves creation forward to its natural conclusion. But how that happens, I’m not sure.

But I think that that intersection of science and religion, as we delve more deeply into that, that’s where we find greater understanding of that question.

Rex Jung, Ph.D.:

My name is Rex Jung, I am an assistant adjunct professor in the department of neurosurgery at University of New Mexico.

I read on Facebook the other day a tweet by John Cleese that said, “I would like 2016 to be the year when people remember that science is a method of investigation and not a belief system.” This was met with 15,000 likes and 13,000 shares. It really exploded on the internet, and unfortunately, devolved into an argument between religious people and scientists about the role of science and religion in discussion with each other.

I think this is an interesting conversation to have and as a neuroscientist, I spend lots of time thinking about the role of belief in science and religion. There are beliefs in science, we call them “hypotheses,” and these beliefs are things we test through empirical evidence. This is part and parcel of what science is about.

In religion, beliefs are held through faith and social conformity and other types of activities, but the dialogue between science and religion does not necessarily need to be one of acrimonious disharmony, as it appears to have been with Mr. Cleese’s tweet.

He goes onto to talk about how amazed he was, I’ve seen such a response to a tweet before, something must be going on here. Remember — literal-mindedness is the killer. And he goes onto to quote Karl Popper and talks about the falsifiability of the scientific method. And I think it’s important that as scientists we remember the role we have as scientists in understanding the natural world and how in religion, the role of religious thinkers is in trying to understand a mysterious world, as well, and how humble we need to be in that endeavor.

In science, we often and we are currently finding ourselves in a bit of a crisis, where a lot of our studies aren’t replicating, and many of our truisms about falsifiability have to be adjusted, even the scientists, the hard scientists of physics, are finding themselves having to consult philosophers when they are considering the vast reaches of space and time, and looking at the multiverse.

This is not research is able to be falsified. In fact that they are needing to look at what are called Bayesian techniques, or probabilistic techniques, in order to understand not whether there is truth or not truth, false or truth in a belief or a hypothesis that’s put forth, but whether it’s more true or less true. Some hypotheses in this complex system, by definition, are not possible to be falsified.

So I guess my admonition or my advice would be to be humble in this pursuit of science, and this interaction between science and religion, both of which are trying to understand complex, dynamic systems that underlie our experience of the world. Both are characterized by revolutions at times, and reformation, which certainly the behavioral sciences appear to be undergoing some sort of reformation with our crisis of lack of our replication ability currently.

So my main advice would be to keep the dialogue going, because this interaction and this necessity to be humble in the pursuit of underlying truths will continue far into the distant future.



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