Science, Religion, and the Over-valuing of Words: A letter to two friends.

By John

Dave, the other day you were mentioning how you felt a little uncomfortable with Eckhart Tolle’s term, ‘pain-body’ and it reminded me of my own struggles with Tolle. I can’t remember if I mentioned this or not, but in the past, I’ve felt the same unease about said term and even occasionally at other Tolle moments as well. For me, the hokey-ness of the term set off a mental alarm that initially caused an unconscious desire to accurately define what this pain-body was. I needed to figure it out so that I could alleviate my unease by either understanding it and accepting it, or by understanding it and disregarding it as a new-age blemish in an otherwise interesting text. Thankfully, I remembered a sentiment that Tolle had expressed very early on in The Power of Now; a similar sentiment that we would later read as the first two lines of the Tao Te Ching. I’ll paraphrase it the same way Julian did earlier on: “Be careful in valuing words.” I think poetic or metaphoric terminology, such as ‘pain-body’ or Tao, can be disregarded easily because their definitions lack a scientific basis. After all, no one can prove the existence for either one and so there is no definitive, detailed, hard-line explanation for either one.

I need to take a quick jaunt to another topic before returning to the ideas of poetic/metaphoric terminology and the over-valuing of words. I want to mention science here but I want to be clear that I’m talking about science in its theoretically purest, methodological form and not the tainted, distorted, institutionalized form that we receive it as. Science, the wonderful field that it is, is vastly incomplete; perhaps infinitely incomplete. The mysteries that science has yet to unveil are far greater than all that it has currently uncovered. It is precise in the way it answers questions–to our benefit–but is, as a result, limited in the types of questions it can answer. For example, science is far from being able to explain consciousness; how individual experience exists, but can tell you precisely how the mechanical operations of a car, cause it to drive. The general rule here is that, the greater the question asked, the less likely current science will play a role in answering it. Questions like “how consciousness arises, the existence of God, what is God, why/how does anything even exist at all?” are all questions that fall outside the realm of current science. Our human knowledge base is not currently capable of answering such questions with the rigorous, exact, certitude that is the hallmark of science. For now, these grand questions are dealt with, to varying degrees, in bits and pieces by philosophy, religion, poetry, music, and art. These questions are dealt with, as best we can, using poetic terminology–the stuff of metaphor and mythology.

And here’s where we start to get beautifully paradoxical, for the crux of poetic terminology is also its strongest attribute. Poetic terminology and metaphor allow us to contemplate ideas that are too big for current science to address. While scientific terminology allows us exact explanations and precise definitions, poetic terminology and metaphor allow us to extend our minds to territories real, but thus far uncharted by science. We trade preciseness and proof for a chance to see further than science can currently take us. The stringent exactitude of science gives us assurance in what we know but limits the realm of our questioning. The expansive realm of philosophy and religion let us consider the grandest questions but leave us with answers that are un-provable, ambiguous and lack detail. The strength of science is simultaneously its weakness. The weaknesses of philosophy and religion are simultaneously their strengths. There is a trade-off when switching between science and philosophy or religion. Rather than pitting two fields of thought against each other, it seems best to simply be aware of the trade-offs.

As I said earlier, the poetic term ‘pain-body’, a potentially very useful metaphor, originally caused me slight discomfort because I wanted to integrate it into my scientific perspective of the universe. My issue was that I wanted to treat the idea of the ‘pain-body’ as if it were a physical thing that could be measured if only we had the right tools. Unconsiously (in the Jaynesian sense), I was trying to put that term in a box so I could better incorporate it into my perspective. I wanted a solid definition for an idea that is currently impossible to solidly define.

I was valuing words too much.

It was only after I mentally said “aaaww, fuck it!” that I was open enough to start to get a feeling for what the ‘pain-body’ might be. It’s meaning expanded for me, and this broader, vaguer definition allowed me to strive for common ground with Tolle at moments where I might have otherwise found myself feeling uneasy with mildly confused disagreement.

I think part of the disagreement between people who are religious zealots and people who are atheist/scientist zealots is that they value words to an extreme. It’s impossible to understand another point of view when you are so entrenched in your own narrow discourse that you place your own meaning on the terminology of others and, in doing so, fail to understand the meaning that they are attempting to convey. Of course people can have genuine disagreements, but part of the problem is the attitude that, “I will use my terminology, which is of course correct, and if you use terminology from an opposing discourse, then I will immediately take that as a sign to disagree with you.” It seems crucial, when speaking to someone whose views are filtered through a different discourse than your own, to attempt to understand the meaning they are trying to convey without getting side-tracked by terminology that is understood and interpreted in a way slightly different to that of which you are accustomed. This is why I love the sentiment expressed so early on in both the Tao Te Ching and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: Be careful in valuing words.

Tao 1


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