Science and Paganism

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S2E09 TRANSCRIPT:

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Yucca: Welcome back to the Wonder Science-based Paganism. I'm your host Yucca

Mark: And I'm your host, Mark.

Yucca: And this week we're actually talking about science. And how science plays into science-based paganism, what science really is, and a little bit around the current events with the relationship of science and paganism.

Mark: Right. This subject is very timely as it turns out. We've been wanting to do this episode for a while. But as it turns out, there is a sort of controversial thread on Starhawk's Facebook page currently in which she expressed her happiness about getting the second installment of the COVID-19 vaccination and really had a number of people, I wouldn't say a majority, but quite a number of people, very hostile to vaccination, very hostile to the pharmaceutical industry, science products and really attacking her quite a bit personally for her going along with what we currently know in, in terms of medical science for addressing COVID-19.

So we felt that it would be a good time to talk about science what it is, what it, isn't, how that dovetails with our scientific, science-based pagan practices and what that all means, how that all fits together.

Yucca: Exactly. Yeah. So a huge amount to cover here.

Mark: Yes.

Yucca: So let's dive in. I think we should actually start with the topic of what is science in the first place, because this is an area where as important as it is in our lives, there's a tremendous amount of misconception around just the concept of science itself.

Mark: Yes indeed. One of the, one of those misconceptions is something that atheists encounter quite a bit in their conversation with people who are, I guess what I would call credulous religionists people who have beliefs that are not evidence-based, but are more experiential based. So they believe things because they've had experiences or simply because they've been told that they're true by people who they believe.

And that accusation is that atheists, and this would also be true of godless pagans, worship science or that our our trust in the products of science is as much faith based as the faith based Willie of someone who believes in God's, for example hear that pretty frequently in those circles.

And it's not true. But in order to understand that it's not true you need to know what science is to begin with and what it's not. Science is not an assertion of a cosmology apropos of nothing. That's not what it is. It's not an assertion that these things are true and you must believe them.

It's an evidence-based process.

Yucca: So let's start by unpacking what somebody could mean when they say science. So typically in the English speaking world, if we say science, there's one of three things that we could be referring to. And first and foremost, science is a process. It's a process of inquiry of learning about the world and in school, they might've made you memorize the scientific method or the scientific process that you had to go through in each of the steps and observation, and hypothesis and all of that. And that's an idealized version of the process. In real life it's never so cut and dry and clean. It's very messy. But that's what we're doing. Now, science, when someone says science, they could also be referring to the body of knowledge, which has been gained through that. Process. So if you take a biology course or you pick up a book about physics, those are talking about the things that we have learned by doing science.

Now, the third way that the word gets used is science can also refer to the institutions or the people who practice science.

So when you read a headline that says science says XYZ is bad for you. Well, science as an a process can't say anything. It's a process. It's a tool that we're using a body of knowledge. Can't say anything, but institutions can take positions. They can draw conclusions, individual scientists can. The word can be used to mean any of those three things, but it's technical meaning really is that process of inquiry and there's, it's not just, Oh, I ask a question. I have to ask very specific kinds of questions for them to be scientific. They have to be independently, the evidence has to be independently verifiable and it has to be reproducible. It can't, to be scientific, it can't be just an experience that I personally had that no one else can verify.

If I do an experiment, the results that I get have to be, somebody else in another lab on the other side of the world, or on, out in the field, has to be able to get those same results and to replicate that.

Mark: In order for the hypothesis to be verified.

Yucca: Yes. Yes. And you have to, when you set up your experiment, it has to be set up in such a way that you can disprove or support your hypothesis. And I'm kind of jumping around here but that leads me to one other really important thing that I want to, conceptual thing, that I want to bring up, which is in science, you cannot prove a hypothesis. There's mathematical proofs, it's a legal term. You can disprove. But you could only add evidence in support of an idea.

Now, when you have enough evidence becomes overwhelming and we then switched to talking about that idea as a fact, we're always learning more, always coming back and refining our understanding, looking for the exceptions and rewriting the story. There's things that we took for granted that we put in textbooks for years, and then we go, Oh wait, the data doesn't support that.

Mark: There's new data and it doesn't support.

Yucca: And when that happens, that's exciting. That's where the good stuff is. Look for where the data conflicts with our previous understanding and, whole new fields spring out of that.

Mark: I think it was Richard Fineman. I'm not entirely sure, but I think it was the physicist Richard Fineman, who said the most exciting words in science are not Eureka it's that's funny.

Yucca: Exactly. And I also want to step back for a moment and say that, my background is I'm a scientist, so I'm an ecologist. And then I later went into the space sciences into planetary science. So I work both as an independent ecologist and am also a science teacher. So I get really fired up about all of this, but we often in our culture have this idea where. As though science is close to only certain people, you have to have a degree in this field or else you can't possibly be an authority in it, or you have to have your PhD and this and that, and have done your postdoc over here, right. Where there is use in there being in someone, having a degree in an area.

But that is only the start. Most scientists, their knowledge. Yeah. They spent a few years in school and they learned some really important processes there. And some of the ethics that guide whatever their field is, but the real knowledge comes from the continual learning. Always going back, learning more, reading the literature in your field, experimenting.

And that's not something that's just limited to someone who's got a degree. Everybody can do that. That's something that, and personally, I think that's a responsibility that we, as citizens of the modern world have. To be able to make informed decisions that are going to influence the direction that our society and our ecosystems and our world go in.

Mark: I agree. I agree. And the term that we use for that is science literacy, which is much less about absorbing A pattern of facts and much more about understanding the thinking process that's involved in analyzing a given proposed statement so that we, as scientifically literate, people can look at a given proposal and say, well, Is that true or not, or is it likely to be true or not?

And what is the available evidence that points towards it? And is there available evidence that contradicts it? What is the relative weight of that evidence that we're going to consider? Is it just somebody say so, or is it the consensus of a whole bunch of studies that have been done independently in order to draw the conclusion that they've drawn?

And that's something called the hierarchy of evidence. Which is an important aspect of doing scientific analysis. I do not call myself a scientist because I'm not one, I don't do science. And I don't have a degree in it. I took a bunch of courses in college. But what I am is someone who's really fired up about science and has been since he was very young.

And so I am an autodidact in various scientific fields. I'm interested in cosmological physics. I'm interested in planetary science. I'm very interested in physical anthropology and human evolution. These are fields that I am always pouring over the internet to learn things about because they just happened to scratch a particular itch that I have to want to know more.

Curiosity is at the heart science.

Yucca: Excuse me

Mark: Go ahead.

Yucca: I think you worked in conservation for many years. Didn't you? Have so a field that, that is very heavy leaf science-based with some other fields in tied in there as well.

Mark: At its best. It's very science-based at its worst, it's sort of just opposed to change. I have, I've seen and, you know, regrettably been a part of some self-styled environmental efforts that were really just about, you know, people not wanting more houses in their neighborhood or more traffic or for their nice view to be spoiled.

And it's not that spoiling a nice view. Isn't something important. I consider beauty to be a really important, element of human experience. In fact, it's one of the four sacred pillars in atheopagan . But that's not as science driven as say conservation of a wetland area for a set of endangered species which is more the kind of work that I prefer to do.

Yucca: I pulled you away though. You are on a beautiful train of thought there about curiosity being the heart of inquiry and

Mark: Well, yes. I mean, we have these four brains, right? We have these frontal neocortexes, and what they seek is answers because. That is our superpower as humans. We aren't fast. We aren't strong. We don't have, you know, giant teeth and claws. We are soft, squishy, slow extremely vulnerable organisms.

But what we can do is we can think in our capacity to think, and our curiosity about the nature of the world enables us to do extraordinary things. Thanks.

Yucca: Yeah. I mean, just this last month alone has shown some of the amazing things that we can do, especially when we work together on this stuff. I mean, last month we. Landed Perseverance on Mars, which has a little drone on it, right. Flying in another world's atmosphere. And that it's the one of many that have come before it. And all of the other missions that are there too. So the HOPE mission and Tianwen 1 mission. And we're just reaching out and exploring and answering questions that, that our ancestors could only dream to be able to answer questions like that for.

Mark: Right. And of course the deepest question that Perseverance is designed to inquire into is are we alone? It's looking for life. It's looking for signs that life existed on Mars. And of course by a, and I don't mean are there other intelligent beings that were on Mars? That's not that's not what I'm talking about, but life, if life was on Mars, the way that it is on and perhaps still is deep in the soil, we don't know.

But if life was on Mars, the way that it is on Earth, that means that life is not a fluke. It means that it's kind of common, right? Given the conditions life will arise. And that has profound impacts for every year aspect of human exploration, everything from art and philosophy and religion to to the scientific disciplines.

So this curiosity, this burning curiosity in humanity, And our soaring imagination, our capacity to dream of these questions and their possible answers. It's deeply moving and inspiring. And so the scientific enterprise, it's not just. This sort of dry fact-finding mission. It is, it's kind of at the heart of the human project.

Yucca: And I want to take a quick tangent about Perseverance mission for the search for life. One of the questions that I hear voiced quite often as, okay. So if there's life on Mars now, it's almost certainly not on the surface because Mars has lost most of its atmosphere. It's still has quite a bit of atmosphere compared to many other places, but the radiation environments very high, the temperatures can be quite extreme if it's there, it's almost certainly not on the surface. It's going to be several meters down. It's going to be at the. Polar ice caps, maybe in subsurface lakes. So why are we searching on the surface where we're fairly sure there is no current life? And the assumptions behind that is that if life is that now there's certainly more dead things than living.

That's the case here on Earth. But also, the life which could have developed if it followed the same path as life on Earth during the short period of time that Mars was a wet, warm world. So there was about a billion year period. Mars actually was what we'd consider habitable before we were during its Noachian period.

Well, the life would have most likely been microscopic at the time. But that would have influenced the chemistry of the lake bed, where we're searching currently. We're looking for what the chemical signs left behind. Types of minerals that could only form in the presence of organic matter or in the presence of these processes, which are not possible, as far as we can tell, abiotically. So we're searching where we can, and then we have the major ethical questions to then look at is okay. If we find those signatures, then we might go and look in the places where we might think that they'd be. But if they are there, we have to really think carefully about the possibility of contamination.

Mark: Right,

Yucca: Right. Do we want to introduce Earth life? To Mars and perhaps back to Mars, because the very popular hypothesis is that we come from Mars, that life developed first on Mars and then hitchhiked to Earth.

Mark: In raining down in, in meteorites that had been struck off of Mars.

Yucca: Yeah. Quite easy to go down the gravity hill. Right. So this is one of the questions that Perseverance and the other rovers and experiments might help us find out is are we Martians? Where are we from? Right. And that really changes our view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

Mark: Yes. And as you can hear in the animation, in our voices, this is tremendously exciting stuff. The implications of this for just our understanding of ourselves and who we are and what we're doing here are really profound. So, you know, science, isn't just people titrating with glassware in a laboratory wearing white coats.

It is, it's the search for it's the search for the text of reality. The factual nature of the objective world that we live in, the objective universe that we live in. Now that said there are questions that science cannot answer. And anyone who's involved with science, who's honest about it will acknowledge that this is the case ethical questions, for example.

I may get sidetracked into game theory later on, but I'm not going to do that right now. Questions about morality are not, they do not lend themselves to the scientific process. Very well. We were not going to run an experiment where we take a population of people and say, okay, 50% of you murder is okay.

50% of the murder is not okay. Now we're going to run the experiment and see how well your society gets along. That's it's not going to happen.

Yucca: Well, there, there are ways to set experiments up like that in a way that would be falsifiable. And that is what makes it scientific or not. But you couldn't answer a question like is what's the best color? What is the meaning of this song? You could answer questions like perhaps do humans have an instinctual morality, right? This is something that has been investigated. And we're leaning towards saying yes, there are certain things which are instinctual we've talked about before, like the idea of reciprocity and things like that are instinctually ingrained into us as animals where other animals have different things ingrained in them. So the what question you are asking is something that has to, you have to be able to test it. And if you can't test it, it's not scientific. That doesn't mean it's not valuable. That doesn't mean it doesn't have meaning in our lives. It's just not science and science doesn't answer that.

Now there are certain questions, which right now are not scientific or unscientific, but one day may become scientific.

Mark: Yes.

Yucca: Multiverse questions for instance.

Mark: Well, or they're even, here on Earth, which at one time were not scientifically testable, but now are I think of the question from the film and book contact by Carl Sagan, where the preacher character Palmer, Joss asks of Ellie, the the astronomer. Did you love your father?

And she says, yes. And he says, prove it. And the truth is that when we talk about the brain experience of love, if you put a bunch of electrodes in somebody's head, you can actually track that there is a particular kind of state that equates to our felt sense of love, but that, so it is possible to prove these things, but that doesn't mean that's necessarily the most meaningful way of approaching that kind of a question.

Science is a very powerful and robust set of tools, but it's not a universal set of tools. There are questions that we have to answer for ourselves around right and wrong and around qualitative betterness or worseness, that's a bad construction. That, that science is really not.

You know, science is just not the way you're going to approach these things. So that leads me to want to talk about scientism. Does that seem like a good place to go? Now there's so much in this topic, honestly, you know, we were talking before we started recording and we realized, yes, exactly.

We, we We realized early on, there's probably way more of this than will fit in a podcast, but we'll do our best. One of the accusations that I have seen in atheist circles a lot in the conversations between religionists, what I call credulous religionists, who are people who believe in things for which there is scant or no scientifically credible evidence.

Like gods or souls or spirits or ghosts or magic, things like that. Those folks will often accuse people who use science as a system for defining the cosmology that they subscribed to as subscribing to scientism and scientism is portrayed as science as a religion that you just, you believe in it and it's faith based and you just believe in it because you believe in it.

And it's just a choice, just like choosing to believe in Vishnu or Apollo. There are real problems with that proposal because the nature of science, first of all, is not to be declarative about what is true. What science says is according to the evidence we have thus far with the best analysis we've been able to apply, this is what is most likely to be true.

And in some cases, that evidence is so overwhelming that we talk about those things as facts. I joked before the, the show started, gravity is real. We we have enough evidence available that nobody is not subject to gravity and it's not subject to what you believe in. Gravity is just real.

Yucca: Sure.

On some very large scales,

Mark: yes,

Yucca: Do we understand it properly. There are some real questions there, but right now, If I jump up, I'm falling back to Earth.

Mark: You're going to fall back to Earth. Exactly. So, so this, what that means is that the body of knowledge that is accumulated together, which is some kind of sometimes termed as science, that body of knowledge is all a set of probabilistic guesses, based on evidence about what is most likely to be true.

And the based on evidence part is the real difference, because, you know, I had an experience where where I heard a voice in my head and I believe that it was, you know, Vishnu talking to me. That is not scientifically credible evidence. It's not reproducible. It's not capturable in any way. And there are other explanations for that kind of phenomenon happening that are more likely to be true.

So the accusation of scientism I feel has to do with a lack of understanding about what science really is. And in some cases and then willingness to understand what science really is, a desire that science be a faith based process. Like those others. But it isn't faith-based. That said it is a human enterprise and human enterprises have human frailties built into them.

There's something called confirmation bias. We're all subject to it. Confirmation bias is seeing what you want to see. You know, the seeing what you want to confirm, what you already believe. And scientists are as subject to this as everybody else, which is why we have these double blind experiments in order to take the observer out of the equation of what the outcome of the experiment is. Because if we just leave it up to humans, to judge, they're going to go with their biases, they it's inevitable that they will. And there are some unethical scientists who cling to their beloved theory, even when the evidence flies in its face.

That's a problem. There are some scientists who are unethical, who are paid by grants or other funding from particular sources that want the outcome of the science to be a particular way. And the scientist cooperates. That is a problem.

Yucca: Although I'd like to say that is far less of an issue than is often accused. And when you look at within the peer reviewed world there in any journal worth its salt, there's the declarations in the actual article. So you can go and look, okay, are there any conflicts or anything that needs to be declared about the relationships between the authors and the subjects that they're presenting.

Mark: Right, right. But all of this is to say that it's a human enterprise and humans have failings, and those can get sewn into the findings of certain studies. But the solution to that is not to throw science out. The solution is better science, exactly science that does not involve people that are so locked into their confirmation biases, that they can't let them go.

Science that's done, you know, without people feeling pressure from their funders. So that's the beautiful thing about science is that it's, self-correcting the peer review process whereby other experts take a look at your out your results and do their best to tear it apart. Okay. Is a really powerful element of the scientific method.

So once you've published your results, Oh boy, I found something. This is great. Then everybody in the world does their best to say, no, you didn't find anything here. Your methodology was flawed and your data was dirty and no. And maybe they're successful and they're right. And now you've learned something.

Maybe they're unsuccessful and you were right. And now you've learned something. So in either case it's very important this constant accretion of experimental and evidential body of knowledge and then analysis of it. And then and then Prosecution of inquiry into those results to see whether they really stand up.

It's all very important and it gives us knowledge with a high degree of certainty. In many cases.

Yucca: And I do want to speak for a moment to the peer reviewed process. It is incredible on many fronts and gives us just as you've been talking about a high level of certainty, it is one of the areas where it really highlighted that science is a human endeavor and that it is fraught with human problems.

And one of the challenges with the peer reviewed process is that it often can entrench pre-existing biases. There's a lot of examples. One of the classic examples is Dr. Eugene Parker and his idea of the solar wind. And that kept, he tried publishing multiple times the The experts in the V in the field that were reviewing his paper, kept throwing it out.

Eventually it was published and he was then later vindicated. We found the solar wind, and now we have a probe named after him, which is incredibly rare to have a space mission named after a living individual. But there are many instances in which changing a paradigm is blocked by this process. So it's a process that helps us on many fronts, but has challenges on other fronts.

And sometimes people will latch onto, well, here's the challenge with peer reviewed, or there's a challenge that there's a minority of scientists who are being paid or the challenge in what you can get funding for. But again, we don't want to throw the whole process out. We don't want to throw science out with that bath water because the science as a tool and even as an institution has allowed us to achieve and learn so much too that the world that we live in today would be unrecognizable to just a few generations back.

Mark: Yes. Yes. Yes. And so this, you know, a lot of what we've been explaining here is this sort of love song to science, which is, you know, a wonderful thing, but I'd like to bring it back a little bit now, to science-based paganism and what that means to us and what that means in the broader context of the pagan umbrella of various kinds of faiths and paths.

I initially stepped away from the pagan community after practicing with it for 27 years. No, that's not right. 22 years. Because of experiences that I had that just were so far out of consistency with anything that could be scientifically validated that I just became incredibly uncomfortable. And then that got exacerbated by two instances where people used supernatural explanations to excuse really unethical behavior, in my opinion, and that, I mean, at that moment, it's like, well, you could excuse anything because you can just say that, you know, some spirit told you to do it or

Yucca: God wanted it.

Mark: Yeah, exactly. And we've certainly seen through history, what, what can happen. The horrible things that can happen when somebody says God wants it.

And so I stepped away and I mean, you've heard this story before. I, I. I started to miss it a lot. And that got me into an inquiry about, well, what is religion? How does that, what does that have to do with the brain? What in the human organism is religion serving, right? And what I came back to was a frame, a framing of a particular path within science-based paganism called atheopagan ism.

And the reason that the science base is so important is that it gives us a solid evidentiary base. For understanding the nature of the universe that we live in which we can then celebrate Revere live in service to it, it provides the foundation on which a rich, emotionally satisfying ethically coherent religious practice can be built.

And that is why that's why I'm on this podcast right now. It's why I'm doing the things that I'm doing to promote science-based paganism in the world. My, my belief personally, is that the world, as it is the world as described by science is so marvelous, so extraordinary and beautiful and amazing and strange and mysterious.

And. All of those, you know, kind of super-light of adjectives that I don't need or want anything else to worship or celebrate or revere in order to have a very rich and abundant life. And that doesn't mean that those other things don't exist. It means that they don't meet an evidentiary standard that I find compelling. Well, I'll leave it there. How about you? Yucca.

Yucca: Well, I mean, there's so many directions to go with this. I want to come to the idea of, so we've been talking about what science is and what scientists do and all of this, and, but bringing it back to being pagan and how that informs our understanding of the world of ourselves, of existence, where most pagans, and most of us in our daily lives are not doing formal science. There's a lot of pagans who are scientists, right. That's really common. I think the very first episode has shared that in my early 20 years being at LANL with a bunch of the LANL folks. So Los Alamos National Laboratory, that a ton of them were pagans. Right. That's really common.

But in everyday life how we use science as a way of understanding and informing our decisions around the world, what is this being science based? And I think that for me, well, one it's using the scientific method in my daily life, but also informing my understanding on things that I value and the choices that I make looking at what we have learned from science about these things and lifestyle choices. In my way of understanding what ritual is or how can I level up my ritual? Okay. I want to level up my ritual. I'm going to go read as much as I can about what the field of neuroplasticity is talking about right now. What have they found out? Right. And even if one doesn't have a formal training in these fields, the summaries of these, of the experiments done.

There's lots of, you know, pop science books and articles and podcasts. There's tons of podcasts out there by scientists who are translating their field into a more accessible format and just looking for as much information as I can. And keeping that really open mind. The, you know, the good mind of a scientist, even if you're not formally trained as a scientist, you can still have a scientist's mind. And that's where the science-based comes in for me with paganism.

Mark: I really agree. And certainly in terms of my my environmental ethic. Choices about, you know, why I decided to drive an electric car, you know, these kinds of things certainly come down to science-based assessments that I've made based on what my values are around how much do I want to impact the atmosphere? How much do I, you know, want to consume energy, all those kinds of things.

The other piece when talking about science-based paganism, I think both of us have articulated really well, what it means to us as individuals, but science-based paganism is also a movement. It's been on the move in recent years and there's more and more attention to it.

There's more and more people participating in it which is exciting. And I need to say a little bit about why I think that's it important because I have high hopes for paganism. I think that reverence for the Earth, which brings us forth and sustains us throughout our lives and for the Sun, of course, which is the energy source, which drives all of that process.

It's such a truthful form of spirituality. It's rooted in reality. And that's why it is so much more moving to me than some others, which, as far as I can tell are not so much rooted in reality. They're rooted in stories and I love stories. I love stories and I love myths and I love metaphors and, you know, symbols and imagery and all that stuff. And I use it all in my rituals.

But when it comes to what I'm going to direct, my spiritual love towards. I want it to be real. I want to know that it's real. And the best tool that we have for knowing things is science. So my hope is that over time, the pagan community will become more science-based and people who don't want to be science-based, they don't have to be, you know, I'm not trying to convert anybody, but my hope is that more and more of us will become more scientifically literate and will become a movement that stands up and starts to speak with credibility.

In our society about what's really important here, you know, how should we be living in relation to the natural world? How should we be living in relation to one another? Because right now that language is all about money and money besides being imaginary. Which doesn't mean it isn't real. It just means that it's something that we've collectively decided to behave as if it's real.

That's an insufficient capture of value. And I want to live my life in relation to what is most of value. That at root that's really where I am with it.

Did we actually run out of stuff to say on this topic? I can't believe it.

Yucca: Well, choose a topic and I can run off on a tangent with it. But I think that for the story of today, far as the story of this podcast I think that this is a wonderful place to wrap up and say as always, we so appreciate all of you being here with us and taking the time out of your day to listen.

And for the feedback that we get from you just for being part of this movement, this community.

Mark: Yes. Yes. Very much so. The I'm always just so tickled when someone joins the Atheopagan Facebook group, for example, and says, Oh, I heard you on a podcast. Or if they leave a comment on the blog. Yes. So I was listening to this thing called the wonder and I heard about the blog. It's just, it's really heartwarming. And to know that these ideas and this direction for spirituality is, has real appeal for people.

Well Yucca. Thank you so much. What a wonderful conversation I've really enjoyed today. Yeah.

Yucca: Likewise. Thank you.

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