You encounter it most blatantly in the courtroom when the lawyer demands a yes or no answer. You can sense the “but” in the witness’ squirm or eyebrow raise or lip bite. That “but” holds all the subtleties of some truth that a yes or no answer will obscure. The forced “yes” or “no” gets recorded. The squirm gets negated. The law is a brute force between two stories collectively agreed upon as competing truths.
Many people see nature’s law in the same light. Survival of the fittest leaves no room for subtle ifs, ands or buts. The law, human or nature, is based on brute facts: life or death without the possibility of liminality; black or white without the muddiness of gray. We equate brute facts with the truth and the truth with reality.
It’s unnerving, in our hyper-charged political atmosphere, to see reality called into question with accusations of fake news and alternative facts. Ironically, I find myself longing for the law to step in and clear the air with brute facts. With the stakes this high, with lives and life itself in the balance, we need truth more than ever. We need facts. We need reality to prevent some myth from blowing us all up.
So suddenly, people who never gave it a thought, are marching for science. Why? Science is the keeper of those facts that we need. Science is the antidote to myth and the stories that religion tells. The current attack on facts has catapulted us right back to Descartes’s dichotomy that drew a solid line between two categories: truth and belief. The truth column holds facts, science and mathematics. The belief side holds belief, religion and art.
Here’s one of the ironies: we built the industrial revolution on this dichotomy. Science was used to create processes and products and factories that industrialized the landscape and polluted air, water, and soil. Science and technology’s facts, as Einstein lamented, can do more damage than a whole coven’s curse. Unlike in a court of law, a rule of truth in science is: they’re facts when they work. And when they work, they create a new reality for better or worse.
Christianity, on the other side of science in that dichotomy, contributed to the environmental destruction by fostering the belief that the soul is meant to transcend its earthly bonds until the Apocalypse when God will destroy the earth and create a new one unbridled by brute law. In the new creation, the lions are tame and the lambs are safe.
Today, the felt experience of threat to facts as the basis of life and integral to the balance of nature is so strong, even Christians are marching for science. Not all. The fight between evolution and creation continues to rage in some courtrooms where the question is asked, “Is evolution a theory? Yes or no?”
One truth that seems to get overlooked is the fact that institutions are created by human beings. We are, by nature, fallible. Research scientists believe they’re acting for some greater good by experimenting on animals and primates. Religious leaders believe they’re acting for some greater good by inciting their followers to violence. We’re not going to find solutions to our deepest problems in science only or religion only.
Sitting here contemplating my plum tree’s buds in various degrees of opening in the rain, observing the proportionality between them and among them and the invisible reality I call nothing and all the visible somethings around them, I’m thinking there’s a possibility that we don’t know what we’re doing. Quantum physicists are not afraid of the subtleties that stretch science’s “truth” to new questions. Zen masters live in the subtleties that stretch religious belief to new questions. Do we have the sensibility and the courage to resist the categories that contain our brute facts or fairy-flitted realities and come to our senses with new questions…turning to nature’s subtleties as if life depended on it?