There is value in accepting provisional truths, while knowing that our minds necessarily fill in the gaps, making certain things up. We do not need to get hung up on whether something is real or not, in the usual materialist sense. Obviously this steers us perilously close to solipsism– the world of “alternative” facts, our current scenario where different people live in entirely different worlds, though they share the same physical space. Rational people are rightly scared of this nightmare and tend to retreat from anything carries the whiff of it. But we are already living this nightmare. What, then, does it have to teach us?
It can teach us that reality is, in fact, partly an illusion. Mystics have said this for millennia, and neuroscience seems to corroborate the "hallucinatory" nature of perception. The question we must ask ourselves is, how do we hold this? To we cling ever more tightly to our beliefs, ignoring anything which doesn’t fit our picture of reality? Do we throw our hands up in the air and give up, determining that it really all is a big, meaningless mess (itself a belief)? Or do we embrace the possibility that something may be deeply true, though we can’t know it with the type of certainty to which we have become accustomed? That in fact, to dive more deeply into our exploration of the universe, we must be willing to accept certain truths, even if they are not "real" in an absolute sense? We do this every day, with every perception we have and decision we make.
I advocate the latter approach, though our habits prefer the former. The usefulness of scientific rationality has convinced us of the unreality of other modes of knowing. It gives us a pretty fair approximation of total certainty. We see symbolic/ metaphoric, mythic/ spiritual ways of knowing, because we cannot grasp nor use them in quite the same way, as outdated, inferior, childish and superstitious. Rationalists, believing in a strictly dualistic reality, cannot abide non-rational ways of knowing: if something is non-rational, it must be irrational, and if it is irrational, it threatens the foundations of rationality. This mistaken and rarely questioned belief underlies the modern world view, so masterfully exposed by Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind, and by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary.
To admit the possibility of a larger order at work in the cosmos, as well as in the human world, we must learn to make the distinction between faith and belief. It is no wonder we have hang-ups in this area, given the history of the West, with its legacy of religious persecution, divine vs. earthly, strict notions of good and evil, Original Sin for the Catholics, and the True Word of God for the Protestants, followed by a Scientific Revolution which turned all of that on its head. Thus we have firmly-believing rationalists, and religious fundamentalists.
None of this is to deny the incalculable value of science, which continues to offer us wonderful insights and gifts. But, in pre-modern times we were able to accept things as true on faith alone, without needing proof. We didn’t need to wrestle with the nature of consciousness, with ideas of metaphor and symbolism. Science, and its doctrine of doubt, require proof. But, as Richard Tarnas and others suggest, we may be at a time where we are called to adopt more subtle ways of engaging the cosmos, which are open to the multiplicity of reality, the value of different ways of knowing. We must learn to hold the tension and inherent ambiguity that arises between these types of knowing, which require an intelligent faith, and rational modes.
Literalism and fundamentalism are the acid-reflux of a diet to rich in rationalism. Our current cultural predicament, swimming in "alternative facts" reflects this. Some believe that more data and more rationality will save us. A belief. These do nothing to address the underlying emotional states that provide the foundations for our concepts. This belief further splits humanity: the rational, the irrational, and everybody in between. These underlying emotional states drive us to build systems that are self-proving, self-reinforcing.
What am I proposing? A mature faith, requiring intelligent, reflective people to accept things provisionally, even if they cannot know them with absolute certainty. These truths are metaphorical and symbolic and they speak directly. Crucially, to do this does not entail the overthrow of science. Entertaining such possibilities opens us to the potential of true healing and meaning: healing not as being “symptom-free”, but rather as a state of wholeness; meaning not as a literal dictionary definition, but as a deep recognition arising spontaneously from our relationship to all-that-is.
We can speculate about the possible correlations between the mythic/ spiritual realms and the scientific realms, though this is especially reviled by most hard scientists today. I humbly ask them to get over it, because this is ultimately good for the imagination, and imagination is key. To do this in a mature way requires an acceptance of the primacy of metaphor and symbol— recognizing them not as “fake”, “fluffy”, or inferior to rational, provable knowledge, but rather as the only possible way into certain dimensions of reality, offering the possibility of aligning us with a deep and mysterious order at work in the cosmos.
Consider the universe as a piece of music. What does a piece of music mean? Perhaps it’s meaning emerges mysteriously from some combination of physical law and cultural conditioning, the peculiar art/ science of music theory, but most of all from the spontaneous creative and receptive aesthetic impulse. Still, none of these statements compares with the lived experience of a piece of music. Sometimes, our approach toward understanding the universe resembles a person examining piano keys to try to penetrate the mystery of a song.
Or, think of someone you love. Now think of all the scientific explanations for love. Group survival instinct, neurotransmitters and hormones, etc. Does that tell you anything of the experience itself?
I am all for the continued advancement of science, particularly in explorations of human consciousness. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it could ever bring us more deeply into the truth of things than a well-held symbolic, spiritual perspective, which also provides a place for the scientific.