On Materialism, and Science Answering the Unanswerable…

If you cry because the sun has gone out of your life, your tears will prevent you from seeing the stars.

– Icelandic Proverb
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I’m a huge fan of Russel Brand, and a subscriber to his YouTube channel. If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you check out some of his videos as he has excellent advice and support for spiritual matters including depression and anger.

There are one or two things he says that I do not quite agree with. I still love his work.

One of those things I disagree with is how he treats science in regard to materialism. He has stated on his podcasts several times that materialism is bad, and I agree completely, in the context of societal greed and lust for money and status. Yet I feel he sometimes unfairly lumps science in with the type of materialism and consumerism we see in our society.

In a previous blog, I described how science is not the same as capitalism’s pursuit of profit through endless engineering (designing and shipping new gadgets for people to buy). Science is all about the pursuit of knowledge, not the construction of some fad device that can bring in millions of dollars, to buy that fancy yacht or huge home we’re all supposed to be dreaming of.

Point of fact, as a scientist, I am very much aware of how science has been repressed by rich and social elites, due to the fact that it is dangerous… the last thing we need is an educated public that can reason out how badly they’ve been lied to! [Note: Sarcasm]

The type of approach science must take toward learning more about the universe and solving mysteries is by its very nature physical (and thus materialistic, in a certain regard). So, when I say science must take a materialistic approach, here I do not mean one centered around selfishness and avarice. This is an important distinction to make. I am speaking of the dictionary definition of the philosophical approach of science: “the doctrine that nothing exists except matter and its movements and modifications”.

This is something that, as far as I can tell, Russel Brand has a real problem with. I’ve also heard this resentment toward scientific materialism voiced, with concern, by various others in the spiritual community. I don’t blame them for their misunderstanding, but quite frankly I don’t think they see what the real issue here is, and the reason why science takes this approach. It is a necessity for the work at hand.

I am reminded of the story of Isaac Newton, how he formulated a very good theory of gravity (based on his equations, which were very good approximations), yet when confronted with some of the failings of his theory, retreated into the notion that there is a supernatural force (in this case, what he viewed as God) that intervenes and “corrects” the problems before they get too far out of hand. If he had just gone further, and not been satisfied with his belief that God is in his great laboratory above, pulling levers and turning dials to correct gravity itself, he may have discovered the real underlying truths about gravity and the universe that Einstein did, centuries later. Instead, he failed to go far enough and arrive at a more complete picture (in science we understand that you are never at a truly complete picture, and indeed with gravity, even despite all the great revolutions that Einstein brought us, there is further yet to go).

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It is possible to imagine a ‘Celestial Teapot’ that orbits around Saturn and is responsible for the creation of the solar system. Where did this Teapot come from, you may ask? It did not have an origin, I respond, it was always there! Why can’t I see it, you inquire? Because it is too small for our telescopes, even the Hubble, to resolve at such distance. Yet you should trust me, it is responsible for all that we see, and it is there. Do you see now why this is not an accurate scientific theory? Not only is there no proof for it, there may never be any proof—it is not falsifiable as we say in science. For a scientific theory to be accepted, it must have some way to prove or disprove it. Yet I have insulated my theory from all such attempts. I can even say the Teapot hides from people so if you send a manned mission to Saturn, it will flee to somewhere else or disappear temporarily from the universe.

This is not science. In order to conduct an investigation, you can only consider the tangible things you can grasp, demonstrate, and prove. You cannot demonstrate or prove the existence of any of the thousands of gods and creation myths that have spawned throughout the ages. Nor should one even try. Science, for reasons of proof and practicality, must concern itself with that which can be observed and demonstrated. I believe the story of the Teapot illustrates this.

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Without such strict rules, we can let any flights of fancy into our theories… and then we can no longer be confident that what we say is true (or at least represents a fairly accurate model of the behavior of particles or whatever phenomena we are investigating).

The difference, spiritualists will tell you, is faith. And that is okay, I’ve made my peace with that. I am Agnostic, and so I keep an open mind about whether some deity exists in some form or the other… maybe so or maybe not. Yet if you let faith into science, you can easily corrupt the findings to say all sorts of things that may not even be true. Perhaps, there is a creator (or perhaps not). Perhaps, as Russel Brand believes, there is more to the universe than this physical world, something behind the veil, so to speak. Yet there is no room for any of that in the equations, and rightly so. You cannot prove what you can only speculate on. This is why science deals with empirical data. I hope you can see the truth of this, but feel free to argue with me in the comments!

Finally, I’d like to comment on the view that there are questions that lie outside the realm of science. I have heard many spiritualists and religious leaders espouse this idea.

I do not believe this is true. Think about it… any question you can pose can be framed as a scientific hypothesis! It may be beyond our present ability to investigate. This could be because our current technology or mathematics is not good enough, not at a required level to truly answer such a question. The question of God comes to mind. Does he exist? We cannot answer this question with science now. Yet in a thousand years (assuming humanity does not wipe itself out)? Do you have any idea how advanced we’ll be? It is not just technological advancement I speak of, but perhaps spiritual and intellectual advancement as well. As George Carlin once observed, we ‘only just crawled out of the jungle’ (speaking in evolutionary terms). Perhaps once we’ve taken a few more steps up the stairway, so to speak, we’ll be in a much better position to answer some of these questions. Perhaps, we will evolve even further when we finally get off this planet (beautiful as it is) and become a spacefaring species (right now, humanity is the equivalent of that guy who watches everything on YouTube, claims to know it all, yet has never even left his house!). I do not think it is fair or correct to say there are questions that are forever unanswerable.

Yes, things like consciousness, dreams, origins (of the universe)… those are difficult questions indeed. Yet people would’ve said the same thing five hundred years ago about all the known phenomena we have answers for today. No one can truly know what the future may bring.

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In a series of future posts, I will describe the two critical mistakes scientists have made in the past decades, as well as two mistakes those in the spiritual community have made. Please do not take these posts as an overall judgement on who is better and who is ‘right’ versus who is ‘wrong’ and all that. I am merely describing areas we all need to correct and work on. First, however, I would like to make a blog post on the mistakes society has made in general. Look for that next week. In the meantime, I wish you all blessings and peace.

https://www.youtube.com/user/russellbrand

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