Monday, July 02, 2007

reason versus faith

there was a recent news item recently announcing that researchers going through Isaac Newton's personal writings had found evidence of his deep religious convictions--something that people may consider odd, seeing that he is commonly presented as one of the pillars of Western science and scientific reasoning.

there's a good article at CNN:

personally, i don't consider myself as particularly religious or areligious, but i don't know that this discovery is as odd or as surprising as reports make it out to be.

i admit that it seems a bit incongruous that a person who supposedly was so committed to the power of reason (as exemplified by the scientific method) was also apparently a person so devoutly attached to the power of faith (which asks for belief, often even in the absence of reason). reason (and science, with its concepts of proof made by deduction from observable evidence through logic) is seemingly diametrically opposed to faith (and religion, with its concepts of acceptance and commitment in things unseen and unknown).

despite this, i don't see that it is impossible, or all that rare.

superficially, the world is a complex place, full of complex things engaged in complex activities causing complex consequences. the temptation is to think that it only makes sense that we as creatures of this world are as equally as complex.

but things are complex only if they are seen as distinct and different. the more distinctions and more differences that are made, the greater the number of variables and entities that are created, and the more expansive the parameters there are to track and balance. invariably, this leads to encounters between distinctions that are so different as to be contrary, producing incongruities that are an Isaac Newton.

the truth is that there is simplicity in all the complexity. if things are no longer viewed as distinct or different, but instead as inter-related components of a larger integrated whole, the complexities dissolve to produce a continuum of existence following the contours of life. there are no sharp boundaries, no demarcating contrasts. instead, the distinctions merge across an undulating spectrum encompassing things formerly seen as different, producing a landscape shifting seamlessly between many elevations and an Isaac Newton.

so what does this have to do with triathlon?

it's because we can see these natures in a sport such as ours; a sport that at times is so maddeningly complicated and yet in so many ways incredibly, effortlessly simple. between the 3 events, within the swarm of other competitors, among the variables of weather and course conditions and traffic and terrain, there is a maelstrom of raw chaos of parameters that we are given to contend with. but for all this, at the end of the day, the story is always the same: the race was just one race--our own.

so we can see the co-existence of complexity and simplicity. we can comprehend the distinctions and differences shifting into a continuum. and we can understand first-hand that things that seem so opposite in some ways really aren't.

like a single human being having both reason and faith.

as incongruous and complex as it all may seem, it is really very simple...we are of this world, and in this world, everything is ultimately any and all things. given what we know and don't know, given the many things that so often and always happen, and given our place within it, this means that this existence is both very likely much more complex than we think and very likely much more simple than we think, in ways that we may never truly comprehend.

because of this, we need to approach the world the same way we approach a race: with an open mind, receptive to possibilities known and unknown.

in which case, it isn't about reason versus faith, it is about reason and faith.

if the link doesn't work, the full text of the article is below:

Papers Show Isaac Newton's Religious Side

JERUSALEM (AP) -- Three-century-old manuscripts by Isaac Newton calculating the exact date of the apocalypse, detailing the precise dimensions of the ancient temple in Jerusalem and interpreting passages of the Bible -- exhibited this week for the first time -- lay bare the little-known religious intensity of a man many consider history's greatest scientist.

Newton, who died 280 years ago, is known for laying much of the groundwork for modern physics, astronomy, math and optics. But in a new Jerusalem exhibit, he appears as a scholar of deep faith who also found time to write on Jewish law -- even penning a few phrases in careful Hebrew letters -- and combing the Old Testament's Book of Daniel for clues about the world's end.

The documents, purchased by a Jewish scholar at a Sotheby's auction in London in 1936, have been kept in safes at Israel's national library in Jerusalem since 1969. Available for decades only to a small number of scholars, they have never before been shown to the public.

In one manuscript from the early 1700s, Newton used the cryptic Book of Daniel to calculate the date for the apocalypse, reaching the conclusion that the world would end no earlier than 2060.

"It may end later, but I see no reason for its ending sooner," Newton wrote. However, he added, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."

In another document, Newton interpreted biblical prophecies to mean that the Jews would return to the Holy Land before the world ends. The end of days will see "the ruin of the wicked nations, the end of weeping and of all troubles, the return of the Jews captivity and their setting up a flourishing and everlasting Kingdom," he posited.

The exhibit also includes treatises on daily practice in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. In one document, Newton discussed the exact dimensions of the temple -- its plans mirrored the arrangement of the cosmos, he believed -- and sketched it. Another paper contains words in Hebrew, including a sentence taken from the Jewish prayerbook.

Yemima Ben-Menahem, one of the exhibit's curators, said the papers show Newton's conviction that important knowledge was hiding in ancient texts.

"He believed there was wisdom in the world that got lost. He thought it was coded, and that by studying things like the dimensions of the temple, he could decode it," she said.

The Newton papers, Ben-Menahem said, also complicate the idea that science is diametrically opposed to religion. "These documents show a scientist guided by religious fervor, by a desire to see God's actions in the world," she said.

More prosaic documents on display show Newton keeping track of his income and expenses while a scholar at Cambridge and later, as master of the Royal Mint, negotiating with a group of miners from Devon and Cornwall about the price of the tin they supplied to Queen Anne.

The archives of Hebrew University in Jerusalem include a 1940 letter from Albert Einstein to Abraham Shalom Yahuda, the collector who purchased the papers a year earlier.

Newton's religious writings, Einstein wrote, provide "a variety of sketches and ongoing changes that give us a most interesting look into the mental laboratory of this unique thinker."

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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