Scientists Think They Know Everything

Occasionally, I hear a person say something like, “Scientists think they know everything.” I am always slightly off-put by these statements, because I think it’s the furthest thing from the truth. In many ways, ignorance is the motivation for scientific thought and investigation. Some scientists even believe the primary goal of a scientist is to remain forever uncertain. Whenever I hear people talking about “know-it-all” scientists, I think about a lot of things—ego, responsibility, indeterminacy, magic wells. Mostly, I think of this particularly amusing (somewhat controversial) TED talk by Dr. Stuart Firestein:

Firestein talks about the nature of science, knowledge, and even formal education. (And magic wells, which is likely my favorite part of the talk and probably also indicative of my reverence for Murakami.) Essentially, Firestein’s argument boils down to the idea that there is progress in “less pejorative. . . thoroughly conscious ignorance.” At the same time, I don’t think Firestein is saying that all approaches to knowledge are equal. He emphasizes the importance of Kant’s “question propagation” in how he talks about turning molecules into perceptions or even the oddities of robotics. Firestein isn’t dismissing the validity of science. He is simply expressing that scientific knowledge isn’t complete or perfect.

“There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy.” ―Jacob Bronowski

Science that expresses an absolute knowledge becomes dogma. Dogmatic science, to me, isn’t science.

If you want to talk about uncertainty and how we grapple with it as a collective people, I can roll with Alan Watts and primary consciousness and the age of anxiety. Or we can move to John Keats and meander with negative capability. Then, we can play a hand of cards with Voltaire. This grappling is expressed in varying areas of culture from philosophy to literature to film. For me, it’s ludicrous to think that uncertainty theory exists only outside of science and in the pursuit of artist presence. I cannot help but wonder if this concept of factual knowledge and ego has trickled down from the type of “bulimic education” that Firestein mentions in his lecture, but maybe I will propagate a bit more on that after a cup of coffee, or several.

Reflections on AWP

The internet can be an unusually lonely place.

This weekend, many of my friends are attending AWP Seattle. AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) is the largest literary conference in the US. Last year, I had the pleasure of attending this migrating conference in Boston with Zone 3 Press.

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An AWP “swag” favorite –
mug purchased from Rumpus.

Even just scrolling through the AWP schedule can be an abundant source of inspiration. Though unable to attend the conference this year, the descriptions of sessions/panels has been similarly thought-provoking for me. In some ways, I think the schedule can be read like a series of brief reminders:

  • Find a quiet space, a sanctuary, for yourself and your writing.
  • Live an experience worth writing about.
  • Embrace peculiarity.
  • Memoir is about developing a deeper understanding of experience.
  • There are consequences that stem from our writing.
  • We owe something to the people we write about.

Out of all the sessions at AWP Seattle, I found myself most drawn to the panel titled “Peace Corps Writers Across the Genres.”

It’s easy to become lost at AWP. (Don’t get me started on the book fair shenanigans.) I loved attending readings or following around my favorite writers to their sessions. At the same time, I was often drawn to feminist topics, writing in relation to nature/yoga, religious writing, book reviews, short plays, sustaining a writing group, short story anything, etc. If nothing else, AWP provides a space to meet up with old friends. Many attend the conference for the drinks and good company.

AWP presented me with a type of psalm that I often experience at writing conferences; there is always more to give. We thrive in community unable to quite live without one another, after all.

Paradox Lost

Though I will continue to focus on spirituality regularly, I wanted to immediately address the oxymoron spiritual atheist and why I consider myself one. The easiest responses are, “Well, the word ‘atheist’ just doesn’t cut it.” or the slightly more facetious, “Atheists can have adjectives too.”

I do not, in any sense, believe in a higher power or essence. Likewise, I don’t think a person must be religious or embedded in religious tradition in order to understand spiritual themes. There are as many secular ways (art, philosophy, nature, etc.) to enhance spiritual thought as there are religious.

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Painting by spiritual artist, Byron Tik.

I consider myself to be on the path of spirituality. I believe in balance, self-discovery, labor, tolerance, connectedness, and unlimited creativity. I want to grow in the direction of beauty, truth, and wisdom. In many ways, I share the goals of other spiritual people. I am on a similar journey. I have only taken a different path to meet them there.

All that being said, I do not believe that beauty, truth, and love are the children of any God, but rather humankind. To continue, for the sake of both contradiction and clarity, I do not behave entirely like the idealized spiritual person. I am too intense, too insecure, too inflammatory. Achieving stronger inner peace is a goal. Restraint is a practice. Dog-faced Atheist may, at times, read more like a pilgrimage than someone speaking from her destination.

We are surrounded by paradox. It’s part of what makes us human. To be humble and proud, to be rebellious and conservative, to be absolute and relative. Even traditionally spiritual people are in a state of paradox by seeking liberty through discipline. I am not nearly as interested in the acceptance or rejection of paradox as I am interested by its means of discovery and reception.  I don’t think I mind the curious looks when I confide to being a spiritual atheist, because I prefer a life in paradox to a life of prejudice.