Words and Transgressions 2 - Fallacy of Moliére's physician

As rational dissenters, who take seriously science and the use of reason and who do not see them as being separate from our religious concerns, I think this fallacy, of Moliére's physician - like that which I offered up last week - is particularly important for us to consider now and then. Why will become clear in a moment.

Maurice O'Connor Drury, the psychiatrist whose book the "Danger of Words" I am following here, begins by saying:

"In one of his plays Moliére has a physician asked this question:'How is it that opium is able to put people to sleep?' The physician replies with great profundity that it is because opium has 'dormative properties', and this answer is found entirely satisfactory by his interlocutors" (p. 5).


With such apparently definitive phrases - or at least such phrases delivered in a fashion that makes them appear definitive - Drury points out that we really reveal more about what we don't know, than about what we do. But the problem is that the way we habitually use language (especially in the religious context - and this address, remember is given in a religious context and not a scientific one though we have many scientists amongst us) can obscure this fact, even from ourselves.

As I noted last week in exploring "the fallacy of the Alchemists" I suggested that what was true in Drury's understanding of his own field (namely psychiatry) seems to me also to be true of religion. We can all too easily say things which seem to be explaining matters but which, in fact, simply reveal our lack of knowledge. No one is ever entirely free from this danger which is why we have to keep a gentle eye on it. This is especially important in religion where truth - at least truth with regard to how one might develop a practical doctrine of life and be fulfilled in it - where truth is sought and, however gently, promulgated.

Now, as we are all aware, the usual (and indeed sensible) response to such a lack of knowledge is to engage in some kind of research to fill in the 'gaps' and I will begin by drawing your attention to Drury's point about this which is that research:

". . . does not mean *collecting facts*; there is too much fact collecting going on. Research means new ideas; new concepts, new ways of looking at old and familiar facts. The important part of research is the thinking done *before* the experimental verification gets under way" (p. 7).

Now, I want to make it absolutely clear that I'm not against collecting facts - far from it - all I am doing is alerting us to the fact that the task we have to perform as liberal religious people seeking to reshape a liberal religion in a way appropriate for the twenty-first century, is about developing new ideas, new concepts and new ways of looking at old and familiar facts. New facts may make significant impacts upon the way we do things but it is important to remember that it has *always* been possible to live a fulfilled life even in days of yore when human knowledge was not what it is today.

Considering this problem is particularly important at the moment because, over the last century the social sciences and, even more recently, the behavioural and brain sciences have begun to turn their attention to religion and we have been presented with many interesting new facts and statistics that seem to offer scientific support and validation of some key religious practices - primarily I am thinking of meditation and prayer (a subject, and praxis!, which many of us have begun to explore here in this church). I'm not speaking so much about the effect of prayer on those prayed for but for effect upon the prayee. It appears that the scientifically measurably helpful effects of meditation are even better attested to.

Although the results of these researches and studies are very impressive and in their own way very helpful, it can be terribly tempting to think that they answer the central *why* of religion when, in fact, they are simply saying something akin to the answer given by Moliére's physician concerning the question of why opium makes people sleep.

It is worth considering why this is might be the case and what one is to do with the fact (remember *inside* a religious community - I'm not trying to be a pseudo-scientist here I am a minister of religion who is trying to take science seriously). Well, Drury points us to some words by Claude Bernard (July 12, 1813 – February 10, 1878) who was a French physiologist, an historian of science and also one of the first people to encourage using blind experiments to ensure the objectivity of scientific observations.

In his major discourse on scientific method, "An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine" (1865) he said:

"In every science we must recognise two classes of phenomena, those whose cause is already defined; next those whose cause is still undefined. With phenomena whose cause is defined statistics have nothing to do; they would even be absurd. As soon as the circumstances of an experiment are well known we stop gathering statistics . . . Only when a phenomenon includes conditions as yet undefined, can we compile statistics; we must learn therefore that we compile statistics *only when we cannot possibly help it*; for in my opinion statistics can never yield scientific truth and therefore cannot establish any final scientific method.
Statistics can bring to birth only conjectural sciences; they can never produce active experimental sciences, i.e. sciences which regulate phenomena according to definite laws. By statistics we get a conjecture of greater or less probability about a given case, but never any certainty, never any absolute determinism. Of course statistics may guide a physician's prognosis; to the extent that they may be useful. I do not therefore reject the use of statistics in medicine, but I condemn *not trying to get beyond them* and believing in statistics as the foundation of medical science" (quoted in Drury p. 9).

It is a reminder that, aside from all the statistics that are and have been collected about religion and religious practices - such as meditation and prayer - beyond them there will always remain a doing - a real praxis. Along with Claude Bernard I think statistics can be incredibly useful to us as guides and can even encourage us to try certain religious and spiritual practices but, with Bernard, I condemn *not trying to get beyond them* and I certainly do not think that these statistical analyses of religion can ever become our foundation.

Yesterday I was playing at the T. S. Eliot Festival held at Little Gidding (with Riprap and the poets Grevel Lindop and Malcolm Guite) and, inevitably, I was minded of the fourth of his Four Quartets entitled "Little Gidding". The end of the first section of this poem speaks perfectly to the thought I have just put before you:

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

Prayer and meditation are important to our tradition - after all Jesus constantly modelled this practise. My favourite passage illustrating this is to be found in Mark (1:35) "And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, [Jesus] went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed."

But, in the same way that I am alert to the fact that much Christian language can be problematic to us I am aware that certain key Christian practices can also be deeply problematic. Recently, in terms of language I have been trying to find ways to help us properly reconnect with it and last week's address was directly concerned with this by making it clear that religious language is not a technical system of naming but a wholly different way of talking about, and ultimately relating with, the world. Today by pointing generally to some emerging scientific statistical evidence of the effectiveness of prayer and meditation is also a way to help us recommence certain kinds of religious practice.

It is not that, as rational human beings, we shouldn't be spending some of our time in verification. Our view of the world would be hugely diminished if we were to give that up; but I am saying that there are certain times and places when we should follow Jesus' example and Eliot's advice and stop verifying, stop instructing ourselves, informing our curiosity or carrying report. But simply to kneel - or its equivalent - in places where prayer has been valid. This church, young though it is built only in 1927 - is one such place and in it I recommend such a stopping - to kneel, pray and meditate. There's nothing illiberal and irrational in this following of the example of Jesus.
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