This is a guest essay from Peter Miesler, who writes the blog Citizen’s Challenge.
The Missing Key to Stephen Gould’s
“… missing was a much more fundamental division crying out for recognition. Specifically,
the magisteria of Physical Reality vs the magisteria of our Human Mindscape. …”
The increasingly shrill and disconnected from physical reality attacks on science by faith-based organizations and individuals has me thinking about an essay evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen J. Gould wrote some twenty years ago in an attempt to address the tension between scientific truths and religious truths.
His solution was the notion of “Non-overlapping Magisteria” which delineated two teaching “authorities” (magisterium), the “magisteria of science” and the “magisteria of religion.” It wasn’t his original idea, rather a continuation of a centuries old dialogue between scientists and the Catholic Church that I don’t have the space to get into.
In any event, Gould concluded there should be no conflict because each realm has its’ own domain of “teaching authority.” Since these “magisteria” do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other and should be able to exist in mutual respect.
When it first came out, I loved the idea because of my own struggling intellectual spiritual journey which was embedded within gathering and learning from sober scientific knowledge about this Earth, while dealing with the spiritual aspect of ‘touching Earth’ and having experienced ‘God’s breath’ against my back, so to speak.
Gould’s idea was interesting and it gained a lot of attention and lively discussion, but in the end seems to have offered little to either side. For myself, the criticisms made sense and my enthusiasm diminished. Still, the conflict kept echoing like an unresolved challenge as I increasingly engaged faith-shackled contrarians towards science.
In the years since I’ve kept learning more about Earth’s amazing evolution and geophysics and also the scientific process itself. A process that’s basically a set of rules for gathering and assessing our observations in an honest, open and disciplined manner that all who’ve learned to understand science can access and trust.
Recently it occurred to me that what Stephen Gould was missing was a much more fundamental divide that is crying out for recognition.
Specifically, the Magisteria of Physical Reality vs the Magisteria of our Human Mindscape.
In this perspective we acknowledge that Earth and her physical processes and the pageant of evolution are the fundamental timeless touchstones of reality. Part of Earth’s physical reality is that we humans were created by Earth out of her processes.
Science shows us that we belong to the mammalian branch of Earth’s animal kingdom. Yet, it’s undeniable that something quite unique happened some six million years ago when certain apes took a wild improbable evolutionary turn.
By and by besides the marvel of our two hands, we developed two feet and legs that could stand tall or run for hours and a brain that learned rapidly. During that evolutionary process something extraordinary fantastical was born, the Human Mindscape.
On the outside hominids learned to make tools, hunt, fish, and select plants, plus they mastered fire for cooking and better living.
On the inside our brains were benefiting from the new super nourishment while human curiosity and adventures started filling and stretching our mindscapes with experiences and knowledge beyond anything the “natural” physical Earth ever knew.
While the human mind and spirit are ineffable mysteries, they are also of tremendous consequence and real-world physical power. They drove our growing ability to study and manipulate our world, to communicate and record our experiences and to formulate explanations for a world full of mysteries, threats and wonders. People learned to think and gossip and paint pictures upon the canvas of cave walls, or even better, upon the canvas of each other’s imaginations. We’ve been adding to our brain’s awareness and complexity ever since.
Of course, while all this was going on the human mind was also wondering about the ‘Why’ of the world it observed and the difficult, fragile, short lives we were allotted. In seeking answers to unknowable questions it seems inevitable that Gods would inhabit our mindscape. I suspect inspired by buried memories of being coddled within mom’s protective loving bosom those first couple years of life.
No doubt these “Gods” enabled further successes, though not through super-natural interventions, but rather through their ability to form, conform, reform and transform the mindscapes of the masses of people beginning to congregate. Thus, combining pragmatic civil societal needs with universally felt, but keenly personal questions, fears, and dreams.
After the middle ages tribal stories, accepted ancient doctrines and religious “truths” were no longer enough to satisfy our mindscape’s growing desire for ever more understanding and power over the Earth. The human brain took another tremendous leap forward in awareness with the Intellectual Enlightenment and the birth of serious disciplined scientific study.
Science’s success was dazzling in its ability to learn about, control and manipulate Earth’s physical resources and to transform entire environments. Science was so successful that today most people believe we are the masters of our world and most have fallen into the hubristic trap of believing our ever fertile mindscape is reality. Which brings me back to Gould’s magisterium and his missing key.
The missing key is appreciating the fundamental “Magisteria of Physical Reality,” and recognizing both science and religion are products of the “Magisteria of Our Mindscape.”
Science seeks to objectively learn about our physical world, but we should still recognize all our understanding is embedded within and constrained by our mindscape.
Religion is all about the human mindscape itself, with its wonderful struggles, fears, spiritual undercurrents, needs and stories we create to give our live’s meaning and make it worth living, or at least bearable.
What’s the point?
Religions, God, heaven, hell, political beliefs, even science, they are all products of the human mindscape, generations of imaginings built upon previous generations of imaginings, all the way down.
Here we are, 2018, sober assessment of physical facts is out of fashion and fantasy thinking in the service of ruthless avarice is in.
Now it literally threatening to topple USA’s government Of The People, By The People, and For The People, in favor of a Me First, profits are more important than people, oligarch run machine.
Well, unless an awful lot of sideliners start getting engaged in our democratic process.
All the while the actual physical creation outside of our conceited little minds keeps on unfolding, following well understood geophysical rules regardless.
Ignore at our own peril.