Magical thinking threatens our government

The increasingly shrill and disconnected- from-physical-reality attacks on science by faith-based organizations and individuals have me thinking about an essay that evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould wrote some 20 years ago.

It was an attempt to address the tension between scientific truths and religious truths. His solution was the notion of “non-overlapping Magisteria” which delineated two teaching “authorities” (magisteria) – the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion. It wasn’t his original idea, rather a continuation of a centuries-old dialogue between scientists and the Catholic Church.

Gould concluded there should be no conflict because each realm has its own domain of “teaching authority.” Since these magisteria do not overlap, they cannot contradict each other and should be able to exist in mutual respect.

When it first came out, I loved the idea because of my own spiritual journey, which was embedded within gathering and learning from sober scientific knowledge about this Earth, while also dealing with the spiritual aspect of “touching Earth” and having experienced “God’s breath” against my back.

Gould’s idea gained a lot of attention, but in the end seems to have offered little to either side. For myself, the critics made sense and my enthusiasm diminished. Still, the conflict kept echoing like an unresolved challenge as I increasingly engaged faith-shackled contrarians in regard to science.

In the years since, I’ve kept learning more about Earth’s amazing evolution and geophysics and also the scientific process itself. A process that’s basically a set of rules for gathering and assessing our observations in an honest, open and disciplined manner that all who understand science can trust.

Recently it occurred to me that what Gould was missing was a much more fundamental divide that is crying out for recognition. Specifically, the Magisterium of Physical Reality vs. the Magisterium of our Human Mindscape.

In this perspective we acknowledge that Earth and her physical processes and the pageant of evolution are the fundamental, timeless touchstones of reality.

Part of Earth’s physical reality is that we humans were created by Earth out of her processes. Science shows us that we belong to the mammalian branch of Earth’s animal kingdom. Yet it’s undeniable that something unique happened about 6 million years ago when certain apes took an improbable evolutionary turn.

By and by, besides the marvel of our two hands, we developed two feet and legs that could stand tall for hours and a brain that learned rapidly. And through the evolutionary process, something extraordinary was born, the Human Mindscape.

On the outside, hominids learned to make tools, hunt, fish, and select plants, plus they mastered fire for cooking and better living.

On the inside, our brains were benefiting from the new, super nourishment while human curiosity and adventures started filling and stretching our mindscapes with experiences and knowledge beyond anything the “natural” physical Earth ever knew.

While the human mind and spirit are ineffable mysteries, they are also of tremendous consequence and real-world physical power. They drove our growing ability to study and manipulate our world, to communicate and record our experiences and to formulate explanations for mysteries, threats and wonders.

People learned to think and gossip and paint pictures upon the canvas of cave walls, or even better, upon the canvas of each other’s imaginations. We’ve been adding to our brain’s awareness and complexity ever since.

Of course, while all this was going on, the human mind was also wondering about the “why” of the world it observed and the difficult, fragile, short lives we were allotted. In seeking answers to unknowable questions, it seems inevitable that Gods would inhabit our mindscape, I suspect inspired by memories of being coddled within mom’s protective bosom those first couple years of life.

No doubt these Gods enabled further successes, not through supernatural interventions, but rather through their ability to form, conform, reform and transform the mindscapes of the masses of people beginning to congregate.

After the Middle Ages, tribal stories, accepted ancient doctrines and religious “truths” were no longer enough to satisfy our mindscape’s growing desire for ever more understanding and power over the Earth. The human brain took another tremendous leap forward in awareness with the Intellectual Enlightenment and the birth of disciplined scientific study.

Science’s success was dazzling in its ability to learn about, control and manipulate Earth’s physical resources and to transform entire environments.

Science was so successful that today most people believe we are the masters of our world and most have fallen into the hubristic trap of believing our ever-fertile mindscape is “reality.” Which brings me back to Gould’s magisterium and his missing key.

The missing key is appreciating the fundamental “Magisterium of Physical Reality,” and recognizing that both science and religion are products of the “Magisterium of Our Mindscape.”

Science seeks to objectively learn about our physical world, but we should still recognize all our understanding is embedded within and constrained by our mindscape.

Religion is all about the human mindscape, with its wonderful struggles, fears, spiritual undercurrents, needs and the stories we create to give our lives meaning and make living worthwhile, or at least bearable.

What’s the point? Religions, God, heaven, hell, political beliefs, even science are all products of the human mindscape, generations of imaginings built upon previous generations of imaginings, all the way down.

Here we are, 2018. The sober assessment of physical facts is out of fashion, while fantasy thinking in the service of ruthless avarice is in.

Now it threatens to topple our government For The People, By The People, in favor of a Me First, profits-over-people, oligarch-run machine.

All the while the actual physical creation outside of our conceited little minds keeps on unfolding, following well-understood geophysical rules regardless. We ignore them at our own peril.

Peter Miesler writes from near Durango, Colo., and maintains a few “information kiosk” blogs, including and

From Peter Miesler.