“People need certitude.”
Certitude is a mirage. Maybe it started with Descartes. He thought the only thing he could be certain about was that he was able to think. “I think, therefore I am.” But ever since, some people have gone off on the crusade to acquire certitude. Some of those people call themselves “scientists.” But there are other kinds too, who call themselves “religious people.”
Science is based on observation. We use one of our five senses to observe something closely. What we look for are correlations.
A correlation is a situation where when one thing happens, another thing tends to happen. We would like to say that when one thing happens, another thing always happens. When one thing happens and another thing always happens, we say that the first thing causes the second thing.
But we can never say “always.” We can observe something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time the correlation can fail. Because we can never say “always,” every scientific statement is a fiction, a story that we make up. The story is probably true but could be false. To claim that one thing causes another is creative writing.
We keep on observing. We keep trying to find causes, even though we know we can never be sure our stories are true. We string together statements about causes and make the string into a theory, which is just a higher level fiction. We have to do this because otherwise all we have is a basket of correlations, and correlations without a theory are useless.
Science is story-telling qualified by observation. Careful observation, like what we can do with a microscope, leads us to modify older stories we have told. They used to say that cholera was caused by bad air. When they could observe water with a microscope, the story changed: cholera is caused by microscopic bugs in the water. The effect of the changed story was miraculous—cholera disappeared. The miracle led people to look for certitude through science.
Religious people look for certitude too. Some religious people look for certitude in a text, like the Bible or the Q’uran. Catholics look for it in Scripture and Tradition. Tradition is when the community always says something.
How do we know that the community always says something? We don’t. The community may have said something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time it may say something different. The history of Catholic doctrine is a history of the story changing as people observe things more closely.
I was taught in my courses in theology that when an ecumenical council says something, we can be certain the saying is true. The First Vatican Council in 1870 said that when the Pope says something about “faith or morals,” we can know the statement is true.
When the First Vatican Council made its declaration, there were people who thought the saying was a mistake, that the Council Fathers were trying to please an aging Pope Pius IX. Since Vatican I, popes have been locked into the statements of their predecessors. The locks have become increasingly strained. Pope Paul VI said in 1968 that the use of “artificial” means of birth control is immoral. He had appointed a group of people—all presumably faithful Catholics—to look into the question. The majority of the group did not think contraception is always immoral. But Paul VI apparently thought he did not dare go against what Pope Pius XI had said back in 1931, so he decreed that contraception is always immoral. Every pope since then has declined to say anything different, but the birth rate among Catholics in the United States has dropped dramatically since the 1950s.
Conservative U.S. Catholics point to a correlation: when Catholics considered contraception immoral, the churches were full. Since they quit seeing it as immoral, the churches have emptied. The conservatives say that the cause of the decline in religious observance is the abandonment of the doctrine on contraception. The word “cause” is just as much a fiction here as it is in science. The conservatives are using a scientific argument to defend a religious statement.
Catholics also look to “natural law” as a source of certitude. Scientists regard statements about “nature” as suspect. How do we know something is “natural”? Because people have always said it is? Because it seems self-evident? The authorities in Saudi Arabia apparently thought it was self-evident that women should not drive cars.
Both science and religion operate on “faith,” which is to know things without being certain about them. That seems impossible—how can I know something without being certain about it? But we do it all the time.
I know someone loves me. But I cannot be certain that the person really does love me. Yet without the “knowledge” that someone loves me, love is impossible. Love is based on faith.
Science is based on faith. Scientists know that organisms have evolved from non-organic structures. But their knowledge could be wrong, because no scientific statement is invulnerable. The observation that falsifies the entire theory of evolution could be out there, waiting for someone to find it. What is more likely is that someone will frame the story in a new way, the way Einstein re-framed Newton’s story of how matter and energy operate.
Both science and religion have people who know that we cannot have certitude. Such people acknowledge that even if they cannot have certitude, they believe that what they are doing can be good for people. They both operate with the assumption that faith can live side by side with questioning.
For the last couple of hundred years, ever since people began applying scientific observation to the Bible, it has seemed that science corrodes faith. Seminaries turned out sceptics, who went about destroying religious faith and emptying the churches. The skeptical clergy made two mistakes: they thought that science can give us certitude, and they thought that religion should give us certitude. By making certitude a pre-requisite for the good life, they distorted science and destroyed religion.
We are all human beings who live by the worlds that the people around us create. We live by the stories that our tribes believe. Scientists cannot work without a community of fellow scientists—we call them “peer reviewers,” and their very existence tells us that the truth of what we publish has to be verified by the community. Religious people cannot operate without a community of fellow religionists. Religion without community is magic.
The fragility of knowledge does not lead to chaos. There is no way for coaches to develop foolproof ways to win games, yet we continue to play games. Games are rewarding. When they cease to be rewarding for players or fans, we modify the rules.
The experience of “reward” in games is a good analogy for what Jesus called “life” when he said “I came that they might have life.” Games are rewarding when the players treat each other with respect—disrespect can get you thrown out of the game. They are rewarding when the players can lose—the players are vulnerable. When one side always wins, we change the rules. Games are rewarding when people continue to play even after they lose—they are faithful to the game and its players. Respect, vulnerability and faithfulness are the components of love.
Games do not offer certitude. Science does not offer certitude. Religion does not offer certitude. Yet all three are worth doing. All three can help us love.