Science and Reason: Seeing and Saying

It is a rare qualification to be able to state a fact simply and adequately . . . to conceive and suffer the truth to pass through us living and intact . . . First of all a man must see, before he can say.  Statements are made but partially.  Things are said with reference to certain conventions or existing institutions, not absolutely.  A fact truly and absolutely stated is taken out of the region of common sense and acquires a mythologic or universal significance. . .  See not with the eye of science, which is barren, nor of youthful poetry, which is impotent. But taste the world and digest it.  As you see, so at length you will say.                         Henry David Thoreau     (from his journal, volume 9)

As you see, so at length will you say.  This line from Thoreau, one of our celebrated Transcendentalists in Unitarian Universalism, has riveted me ever since I first read it. Translated very simply, at least in my mind:  when someone tells you something, they are telling you how they see things.  I fear, though, that one of the maladies of our time is the common practice of stating something which is clearly a product of “certain conventions or existing institutions” but with a certainty and passion that pretends to be “mythologic and universal.”

There is a certain humility required–and by that I do not mean anything like self-debasement.  This humility is the energy of seeing deeply.  When we see deeply, we hold together at once two things, and by doing so, create a third.  We hold together our own interactions with life as we know it, “conventions” and “institutions” among other things. We also choose to hold the facts, products and outcomes of the best thinking available to us in any particular field.  Then?  We do the work of integration.  How does my life as I know it and this new evidence or information shape me in a new way as a response?  Then, and only then as persons who see deeply, do we speak.  Then, what we speak is that third thing.  It is what we see–through our experiences and through the best that reason and science have to give us, as we make sense of them both.  When we speak, we offer as gift to the community what we see, deeply.

It’s work.  Doing either the one or the other is pretty cheap, pretty lazy.  Anyone can simply speak what they experience.  Anyone can simply regurgitate research.  Even in those circumstances, we are saying what we see.  Any time anyone speaks to us, they are telling us what they see.  So, it’s worth asking:  what is it that you see?  And are you taking in both experience and reason?

Bob Patrick

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