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During the summer of 2005, the Serendip/SciSoc Group focused on the theory and practice of "Science as Story Telling and Story Revision". Among the issues that arose was a recognition that the original article would generate different specific concerns in different audiences, and so it would be useful to address these with several more targeted versions of the general argument. One such version, directed to audiences concerned about the relation between science and religious faith, was Science: Be Not Afraid by Kate Shiner. The essay below was written by Anne Dalke in response to Shiner's essay. Comments are welcome in the on-line forum for discussion of Science as Story Telling.

Religion as Testing:
Another Sort of Story Revising

Anne Dalke


I've spent a lot of time during the past few years, thinking about the relationship between scientific inquiry and religious faith-- so of course I found myself particularly intrigued by the piece you just published on-line called Science: Be Not Afraid.

What interested me especially was your attempt to reassure to those who may be afraid to put their faith on the line when choosing to engage in science, by claiming both that

Do you know the essay @ the Writing Descartes site entited The Life of Faith is Not a Life Without Doubt? It's been important one for me because of the way it articulates the interaction between "faith" and "doubt." The argument made by the Rev. Dr. Eaves (whose Advent sermon this was) is that

God and the creeds of faith are not the certainties they are cracked up to be....Our faith is a fragile hope that God lives with us in the reality of our darkness, in our search for truth, in the bold guesses we try to live by. It's all only a theory. The question is whether it leads anywhere.

Rather than assuring people of faith that engagement in the pursuit of science will not be too de-stabilizing (as you say, one need not be a skeptic about every story in one's own life to become a scientist), I wonder if we might instead come to understand religion as a kind of testing that is not very different from the sort of story-telling and story-revising science you're advocating:

The exploratory seeking that Quakers call "continuing revelation," the process of constantly "testing" in a social context, against what others know, what one knows oneself, against new experience and new information...are activities that, ideally, can be practiced in both the religious and the intellectual realms. (From Science & Spirit)

Rather than assuring people of faith that science will not make the world seem too uncertain, understanding the religious search as one of unending doubt might also provide a way of dealing with what you call one of the limits of this particular type of storytelling: that innately personal and/or non-replicable observations...are by their nature unassailable. I have a hunch that it be possible to tease apart two levels of "assailability" here. In one sense, each of us has experiences -- of light, of darkness, of pleasure, of pain -- that are indeed unassailable: we can not be argued out of the internal experience that is an emotion ("Whatever you meant, I know what I feel!"). But all of our experiences can be gathered up, compared, rubbed against one another. Taken together, they may tell us something different, or give us a different way of understanding what we know we experienced. (Something like this happened during the universe bar one night last winter, when we were exploring together "the space of dreams": Some of us dreamt only of ourselves as ourselves. Some of us dreamt of ourselves as other people. And some few of us dreamt of ourselves not as people at all, but as animals or other items. Comparing our experiences gave us all a sense, expanded beyond what each of us knew experientially, of what dreaming is, and does, and means, the ways in which dreams are derived from the real world...but always in some delayed way, not by responding directly-while-dreaming to sensory stimuli.)

On the other hand, it may also be possible, using the comparative storytelling paradigm, to "assail"-- and thereby actually to alter--our experiences. Here's a recent, somewhat painful illustration. One of my daughters was expected to fly home this weekend, @ the end of a year spent in Senegal. She called me when I was already @ JFK waiting for her, to tell me that she had been bumped from her flight. When I thought of returning home (which was all decorated to welcome her back) without her, this thought arose instantly: "It's like going to the hospital to have a baby. The baby is stillborn. And you have to return home, to a prepared nursery, without her." I later told this story to a friend, who offered a friendly revision: "This feels like going to the hospital. It's been false labor, and now you have to go back home (which is all fixed up for her arrival) empty-handed. But you can return the next day, and bring home the baby." In offering me an alternative story, this friend actually offered me a means of altering my experience. What seemed unchangeable within was revisable; my experience was still one of disappointment, of course, but it changed from being a tragic tale to one of delayed gratification. (Of course, it also helped that my daughter did come home the following day, when it was nice to have a story palatable enough to share with her!)

I've been doing lots of reading lately about Buddhism, which emphasizes this idea of the revisability of that which lies both within and without. I'm immersed right now in a fine book by Mark Epstein called Open to Desire: Embracing a Lust for Life--Insights from Buddhism and Psychotherapy. It explains the practice of watching our desires and longings arise--acknowledging that they are not "things," not fixed, but passing--and then letting them pass. It explains, too, the possibility of an awareness that others aren't "things" who can satisfy us, but similarly impermanent and--if clung to--similarly disappointing. Hold them lightly. Let them go.

It's a kind of testing: looking at the objects of the world, others, ourselves, watching their/our behavior, predicting further behavior--being always open to realizing when we cannot do so.

That's a kind of testing. You call it science. I would call it religion.

See Science and Religion, Faith and Revision: A Conversation for continuing discussion of matters in this essay

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