Thursday, July 12, 2012

Phlogiston for the Unitarian Universalists

Good morning!   Today we’re going to learn about phlogiston, a substance that never really was.  Got that?   All together now PHLO-GIS-TON!  I’m  going to show how the phlogiston story illustrates that knowledge and belief complement each other.  Then I’ll move to the religious implications of phlogiston or how to respect a belief you think is wrong.
Check out the Unitarian Universalist Principles and Sources in the front of your hymnal.  Our third Unitarian Universalist Principle asks us to accept one another. Our fifth Source counsels us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science.  What about accepting those who do not heed the guidance of reason and the results of science?  How can we reconcile the third Principle and the fifth Source?   How can we address with respect a fellow Unitarian Universalist who holds beliefs we consider against reason?
In the reading, Pinker [Steven Pinker The Better Angels of Our Nature p 181] says we can have confidence in beliefs backed up by data and logic.  Beliefs we have confidence in I will call knowledge.  For example, we have knowledge the earth goes around the sun rather than the sun going around the earth. We can be pretty sure of knowledge.  We trust the data.  We see the logic that developed the data into a paradigm.  Knowledge is universal, accessible to all humans.
I defined knowledge as beliefs backed up by reason and observation;  I’m defining beliefs as tenets that are held by individuals or a limited group.  Beliefs may have a scripture to back them up, but they don’t have corroborating data.  One such belief:  the moon is made of green cheese.   PSE
How can we discriminate between knowledge and belief?  In Unitarian Universalist culture, we are taught to listen to each others’ stories.   We’re likewise taught to respect each other’s beliefs and because experiences and feelings are all valid, we assume all beliefs deserve equal confidence.   Listen to what Isaac Asimov has to say on that subject.
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”   [Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980).]
Let’s investigate how we obtain knowledge we can have confidence in.  Scientific knowledge begins with beliefs or working hypotheses that seem to fit what’s been observed. In the 18th century there were two theories of combustion or burning.  The first working hypothesis was the phlogiston theory. Our Unitarian forebear Joseph Priestley, minister and chemist, was a staunch supporter of the phlogiston theory.
The phlogiston theory stated that all combustible substances contained a substance called phlogiston.  Then during burning, the phlogiston was released, leaving a dephlogisticated substance.  For instance, when magnesium burns it releases the phlogiston it contained and leaves a dephlogisticated substance.    Priestley, the chemist, discovered a gas that he named dephlogisticated air because that gas could suck up more phlogiston than ordinary air.
The Antiphlogiston theory, the oxygen theory, left out phlogiston.  It stated that during combustion a substance in the air, oxygen, combined with what was being burned to form a third substance. In the above example magnesium would combine with oxygen to form magnesium oxide. Another example, when the carbon in fossil fuels burns, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide.  Don’t both the phlogiston theory and the oxygen theory seem plausible?  Maybe the phlogiston theory even more so because it doesn’t postulate a third substance, the oxide.
Priestley, who was a better minister than chemist, was the last phlogiston holdout against the Antiphlogistians, the oxygen guys.  Priestley, the minister, believed that God and nature were the same.  Possibly he maintained his faith in phlogiston, the wrong theory, because his belief confused his science.  His belief  led him to focus only on the data rather than scientific hypotheses and theories.   Historian of science John McEvoy says that "Priestley's isolated and lonely opposition to the oxygen theory was a measure of his passionate concern for the principles of intellectual freedom."
Finally, chemists like the Roman Catholic Antoine Lavoisier started weighing compounds and gases in closed vessels before and after combustion. Something wasn’t right;  phlogiston had a negative mass.  Something that weighs less than nothing of course can’t exist. Thus ended the hundred-year reign of the phlogiston theory. The oxygen theory triumphed.  Priestly, however, is credited with the discovery of oxygen, the modern name for dephlogisticated air.
From a 21st century standpoint, some of us agree with Priestley’s philosophy but nobody believes in phlogiston anymore.  However, the phlogiston theory produced some scientific insights.  It permitted chemists to see apparently different phenomena as fundamentally similar: combustion, rusting of metals, and the respiration of living organisms. (All these phenomena involve combining a substance with oxygen.)  The idea that metabolism is not due to a mystic Life Force – it’s just chemistry – paved the way to modern pharmacy.  The belief in phlogiston was useful.  I’ll discuss more about usefulness of beliefs later.
  What makes it even harder to distinguish between beliefs and knowledge is that knowledge takes on a political or religious value.  Here are some examples:  first the one I alluded to earlier whether the earth goes around the sun.  When Galileo proposed this idea, the Church, which had to believe the earth was the center of the Universe, got so threatened they threatened Galileo with torture.
In science versus religion controversies, those who take the scientific position are not just factually wrong, they are heretics, morally wrong.  For instance, science supports evolution; whereas the Bible read literally supports creationism or Intelligent Design, the idea that a supernatural being created the Universe. You have to believe in Intelligent Design to be a morally good Fundamentalist.
Liberal left beliefs and science are likewise intertwined. How should the data be interpreted? Those who disagree with the politically correct view of a topic like global warming or the peacefulness of primitive peoples are considered morally challenged outcasts who deserve to be denounced.  Those who doubt climate change are vilified as Deniers.  Pinker says anthropologists who doubted the peaceable nature of primitive peoples “found themselves barred from the territories in which they had worked, denounced in manifestoes by their professional societies, slapped with libel lawsuits, and even accused of genocide.” [Pinker p 43].
Although beliefs are individual or are held by a limited group, the positive aspect of beliefs is they give our lives meaning.  For instance, the concept of East in the Four Directions comprises air, morning, spring, childhood, creativity, and new beginnings.  When Unitarian Universalist Pagans acknowledge the powers of the East,  new beginnings take root in their lives.  Another example, Fundamentalists feel that if God created the Universe and them and has a plan for them then their lives have meaning. If they evolved by means of natural causes, life has no meaning, and anarchy and violence will reign.
Religion eventually incorporates scientific knowledge into its belief systems.  After 400 years, the Catholic Church apologized for the Galileo affair.   Maybe someday the Fundamentalists will be able to accept evolution.
Beliefs have symbols that unite people around them, for instance the flaming chalice unites Unitarian Universalists. Rev Bill Gupton of the Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati says, “I encourage you to find your own, unique, personal way of engaging this chalice we light each Sunday morning . . . there are many ways of looking at the flaming chalice as there are individual Unitarian Universalists. For some, the chalice is the light of reason amid the darkness of superstition. For others, it is a beacon of hope in times of distress. To some, it represents the warmth of the community we share in our congregational life, or a reminder that we are neither the first, nor the last, people to gather in this manner. For others, it symbolizes the freedom of belief institutionalized in our Unitarian Universalist churches.”
Sometimes scientific knowledge and symbols of belief intersect.  For instance, there’s a chemical, oxytocin, the hormone that makes us kind and gentle, you might call it the mercy hormone. Nursing mothers produce quantities of this hormone.  What about letting nursing mothers, suffused with oxytocin and thus kind and merciful, run world affairs?  Tsutomu Yamaguchi  . . . who survived both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suggested, “The only people who should be allowed to govern countries with nuclear weapons are mothers, those who are still breast-feeding their babies.”   [Yamaguchi quoted in Pinker, p 684].  Note that in medieval and renaissance paintings, the Blessed Virgin Mary, a symbol of mercy, was often depicted as a nursing mother.
Instead of looking at beliefs and knowledge as opposites ends of a line, let’s look at them from a different direction, what is the usefulness of a  belief?  I quote from the Rev Tony Larsen of Olympia Brown UU church in Racine, WI:
“For example, if believing in God helps you be a better person - or at least doesn't make you a worse person - then fine, believe in it. We encourage your belief. If being an atheist helps you take more responsibility for creating a better world - or at least doesn't prevent you - then fine, don't believe in God. We encourage your atheism. The only beliefs we don't want you to have in this church are the ones that lead you to hurt people...I can't tell you what the bad beliefs are, because sometimes the same beliefs do different things for different people...For example, a lot of folks believe that there's a heaven and a hell after you die. For some people, that is positive, because they wouldn't be good otherwise. I would rather have you trying to be good because you realize that's a better way to live - rather than because you're afraid of punishment or hoping for reward. But if you're not going to be good without believing in heaven or hell, then it's a positive belief in your case.”
In conclusion, I look to science for beliefs I can have confidence in about the material world, but I treasure symbols that are meaningful to me, such as the rich metaphors in the Four Directions, the Blessed Virgin Mary from my Catholic background, and our beloved Unitarian Universalist chalice.
To answer the questions I posed at the beginning, the religious implications of phlogiston are:   Even if beliefs don’t deserve confidence or aren’t true in the scientific sense, they nevertheless deserve respect as long as the beliefs don’t lead the person to hurt others.   Remembering the function of beliefs lets us respect all beliefs.  Just like with the Phlogistonists, even if  beliefs aren’t true in the scientific sense,  beliefs may have usefulness for the believer.  In addition, maybe a belief is a meaningful symbol. Maybe a belief makes a better person.
May we heed the guidance of science and reason, accept one another, and encourage each other to spiritual growth.  

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