Excerpt from The Big Picture: “Am I Open Minded?”

As we start out ask yourself the question, “Am I open minded, ready to follow where evidence leads, with no preconceptions?”

Now I’m sure you’ve answered “yes” because none of us would like to admit otherwise, but actually, it may be impossible to start any investigation without preconceptions.   They are the motivation behind many investigations … the desire to obtain proof of what we already think about something.

Preconceptions are almost inherent in the scientific approach – we think of a theory, and then we investigate to test it.  If we are honest, we will admit that we like our theories and feel good when they are proved right.

Perhaps there is one preconception that I will allow at this stage; that each one of us matters. I matter. You matter.  Our friends and neighbours all matter.  If we don’t matter then there is no point in anything and it’s best not to think any deeper.  That road leads to despair.

If we are going to explore these questions fully we are going to have to consider questions of God, science, reason, history and more.  We are going to have to include objective data and subjective experience; objectivity keeps us from being deluded but it is the subjective that really matters to us.

Even if we try to think about an issue with an open mind, we nevertheless carry many assumptions that we don’t realise.  Speaking personally, my scientific education and engineering career have both instilled a basic assumption of materialism: the fabric of the universe is all there is.  When people talk about a spiritual dimension, is it just another material dimension that we can’t see?  And if there is a spiritual dimension, how can it interact with the physical universe?  Or if there isn’t a separate spiritual dimension then where does God exist?  These are not straightforward questions, but I’ve come to realise that they are valid.   I have had to challenge a lot of what I took simply as common sense and to open my mind to new possibilities.

It can be difficult to refresh our way of thinking, particularly if we are surrounded by others who have a similar outlook to ourselves.  In a recent discussion on European history with a university student he mentioned that such and such country was fascist.  It led me to ask what it is that makes the people there fascist.  Is it genetically programmed into each individual there?  If you took any one of them and brought them up elsewhere would they be fascist?  I think it likely that they wouldn’t.  They are fascist because everyone around them is fascist.  They are unconsciously trained to be fascists.

So what are we doing in our country?  What are we training ourselves to think like?  What assumptions do we hold, and are they valid?  Books such as The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake[i] challenge many of the assumptions of the day.  He asks us to challenge our scientific dogmas, our blind assumptions.  Even if we end up thinking the same as we did before, we have a more solid basis for our beliefs if we go through the process of challenging our assumptions.

Implications

Whenever anyone is presenting a case we might ask ourselves, “If I were to accept what is being presented and agree with the author, what would be the implications for me?  How willing would I be to accept those implications?  Do I need to understand the implications before I start?”

Many parents choose not to have their babies tested for Down’s syndrome because they would not be willing to accept a termination of the pregnancy and so feel that there is no point in knowing before the child is born.  Others might need to understand all the implications before deciding; how accurate is the test, and what are the options available if the child tests positive? Still others might insist that they must have the test because they are not prepared to risk having a child with Down’s syndrome and would terminate the pregnancy if that were shown to be likely by the test.

This is a book that deals with questions of God.  This may worry some people. If they were to be convinced that God is real they would have to become the sort of bigoted judgemental fanatic that represents the worst face of religion.  They may think that they would need to join a religion and accept all that they are told without thinking, and be associated with all the religious atrocities of the past. Or that they will have to give up their Sunday morning lie-in and trot off to church with a bunch of hypocrites. If these thoughts resonate with you, take courage – it doesn’t have to be like that.

Fear

People can be frightened by the prospect of change, but often change is beneficial.  For instance, when redundancies are announced, there is a lot of fear in the workforce.  Some may have been in the same job for thirty years, and they simply don’t know anything else – how will they cope if they have to find another job?  And yet being forced to change jobs can be a most liberating and life-changing experience.  I recall hearing a report that those who remain behind after a round of redundancies are likely to be more stressed than those who have been made redundant.  They are still in the same job, but with increased fear of losing it and still in fear of change, whereas those who have left are now busy rebuilding their new lives and careers.  That’s not to say it’s easy to change, but a change in a job or a worldview can be very liberating.

Peer Pressure

Perhaps we don’t want to change our views because of what others might think of us.  We’ve probably aired our opinions sufficiently to our friends that any major change would be an embarrassment.   Or perhaps we live or work in a culture where there is only one accepted way of thinking.  We might find that we have to live a double life, adopting one attitude at work and another in private.  For instance, to progress a career as a scientist it is necessary to publish papers and learned articles.  Such articles are subject to peer review.  This process is in place to ensure that sound scientific information is published and that mistakes do not get propagated.  But the process inherently risks that only those papers that conform to the present scientific way of thinking are published.  If a scientist becomes too free thinking, then the peer review process may prevent his papers being published and his career may come to a grinding halt.  Reputation is essential, and doing anything that might lose it is risky.

An ambitious scientist may be fearful of embracing religion.  Religion allows that God might interfere with the workings of the world.  That might mean that the universe is not completely predictable, which would seem to undermine the basis of all the work of science.  Allowing the existence of God might mean that it will be impossible to have a complete scientific theory that predicts everything – which is challenging to anyone who invests their life in seeking it.

Similarly, in religious circles it can be damaging not only to one’s career but also to one’s life to challenge the current way of thinking.  Men and women have been labelled heretics and have been burnt at the stake for holding different religious beliefs.

Religious people may have a deep fear of science.  Apart from the vocal assertions made by some atheists that science has done away with God, there can be fear that science might undermine or even disprove certain traditions or beliefs that the given religion may hold dear, or even sacred.  A religious man may have invested so much in his religion that he’s lost the desire, and maybe even the ability, to be open to learning that some of what he’s been taught is incorrect.  Yet surely a truly godly man would be desperate to be corrected if he were misunderstanding God?  In her book Awesome God, Sara Maitland encourages religious people to embrace what can be learned from science:

Start with “God exists” and everything we can learn will tell us more about God.[ii]

So returning to the question, “Am I open minded, ready to follow where evidence leads, with no preconceptions?” we can see that it is almost impossible not to have preconceptions or preconditions.  A first step in challenging them is to consider how we came to believe them in the first place. How did we come to really know what we know?

[i] Rupert Sheldrake: The Science Delusion ISBN 978-1444727944

[ii] Sara Maitland: Awesome God: Creation, Commitment and Joy ISBN: 978-0281054190

About Minimalist Christian

Phil Hemsley is a graduate of the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the UK. He works for a multinational company in the power industry, has presented technical papers at international conferences and holds many patents. He has published two books, the most recent is "The Big Picture, an Honest Examination of God Science and Purpose". He has lived on both sides of the faith fence. He is married, with two daughters.
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