The Reconciliation of Personal and Collective Truth

It is often said that science and religion are two different paths to truth. Religion and spirituality offer a sense of personal truth (what I will refer to as knowing) through faith and subjective experiences of meaning and transcendence. Science, on the other hand, offers an objective sense of the world—knowledge of how things exist within and apart from the individual. They are each their own path; each their own truth.

In this pandemic, reconciliation between these two paths has proved challenging. And reconciliation is very much needed, regardless of the issue or context at hand, and in this time as well as any other—because sometimes, there’s only enough room for one kind of truth.

As human beings, we are all truth-seekers. In one way or another, each of us strives to make sense of our individual time here; to know ourselves, our world, and the people and things in it. Collectively, we study the world in order to understand how it works, and to know who we are as a species—what brought us to this time and place, and what the future has in store. From the perspective of the individual, there is an element of truth that can only be gathered from the experiential—through direct engagement with the world in acts of sensing and perceiving. From the time we’re born, such empirical “knowing” is important to us all. It’s how we find our bearings here, how we gain a foothold. When it comes to religion, knowing is provided to (or forced upon) individuals by way of story, doctrine, or dogma. It’s all laid out from the beginning, for the most part, aside from the personal sense of connection that followers may (or may not) develop with their subscribed notion of divinity. In the case of spirituality, knowing is a more personal quest. It’s a less constrained search for meaning and purpose in the world, and through such vehicles, it offers the individual a subjective sense of connectedness.

In any attempt to know oneself and one’s place or purpose, the subjective reigns. Knowing is a subjective state, reflecting the individual’s personal relationship with the world and everyone/everything in it. Whether it’s provided by religion or spirituality (or none of the above) is somewhat beside the point. Knowing is knowing, and in the subjective there’s only you. Your perspective is all that matters.

Science offers the necessary counterbalance to such private experiences of knowing. (Though I do not believe it to be the outright antithesis.) There are few fallacies I hate more than the one that paints science as a religion unto itself. (Few ideas could be farther from the truth.) Science is not a value system (unless you frame humility and objectivity as values, I suppose, though they’re really just prerequisites to knowledge). And it is certainly not dogmatic. Though it has its fair share of “believers” (thankfully), these individuals have not committed themselves to some unchanging body of knowledge or script, nor have they decided to see the world as others have prescribed it to them. To the contrary, science is a process. It is an approach to understanding the world objectively, in a way that is carefully designed to overcome individual bias and ego; and to embrace (rather than resist) change and growth through ongoing inquiry. As Carl Sagan once explained, “faith is belief in the absence of evidence.” Science, on the other hand, “is a way of thinking, a way of interrogating the universe with a fine understanding of human fallibility.” Importantly, the process of science and the knowledge that results can be agreed upon by multiple individuals, across space and time, while personal knowing can only really be known by the knower.

The very issue that some take with science—that the knowledge it produces changes over time—is the very thing that demonstrates how unlike religion it is. There is no such humility in religion, no such willingness to be proven wrong. (Some degree of humility may be possible with more personalized forms of knowing, of course, but there’s no guarantee.) Consider the early days of the pandemic, when information on the transmissibility of COVID-19 was lacking and it was recommended to the public that they not wear masks. The subsequent shift in public health policy left many scratching their heads, confused over how science could ever “change its mind.” Doctors and public health officials alike were doubted and criticized for their apparent about-face on the effectiveness of mask-wearing. In actuality, of course, this example illustrates a strength of science, and what ultimately sets it apart from religion: as new information is gained, knowledge evolves. With science comes the humility needed to accept one very important truth—that we don’t have it all figured out.

The historical tension between religion and science is really just a friction between personal and collective paths to truth. But the tension is tenuous at best, and the friction mainly fabricated. As individuals, there will always be a need for personal truth—for some sense of knowing. And collectively, there will always be a need for objective study and knowledge of the world—for something we can all agree upon.

Contrary to popular belief, these sources of truth can co-exist generally (and they should). The challenge lies in the specific. In personal matters (such as love, desire, or realizing one’s potential), intuition and other subjective forms of knowing are essential and arguably, in most instances, all that count. But in problems of communal concern (like a pandemic), personal knowing is simply insufficient and often irrelevant. The subjective is entrenched in self-interest and bias. It functions according to ego, insomuch that the personal truths it arrives upon are mainly self-validating and all too often self-enhancing, sometimes to the detriment of others (or, at the very least, to the exclusion of collectively verifiable and agreed upon truths). By its very nature, the subjective is too personal. It’s too self-involved, and as a result, often undemocratic.

In matters of infectious diseases, vaccines, and the like, personal forms of knowing have little relevance. Unless one is a virologist or an immunologist, it’s impossible to have a personal view or feeling regarding virology or immunology that is either accurate or complete (simply because there is just too much to know). And any attempt to engage in personal knowing about such matters is sure to overlook other, more complex factors that are relevant to one’s community or society at large. One may have the feeling that a vaccine is not “right” for them, but that doesn’t mean the feeling is either rational or justified. While I acknowledge the existence and importance of bodily awareness, one cannot be aware of the effect of a vaccine before taking it, especially when one hardly understands the vaccine (or its chemical composition) in the first place. In this case, science and objective knowledge trump personal knowing for that very reason, as well as another: The pandemic is a collective threat, and collective threats must be managed with a degree of objectivity, with attention paid to diverse factors that affect numerous groups of people—of which any one individual simply cannot be aware, and for which personal knowing is simply too limited (and biased).

The truth is that living in a society always involves a trade-off between the personal and the collective. An individual is never entirely free to do as they please. Personal freedom and choice must always be balanced against the collective good—always. Otherwise, the very idea of society is forsaken.

Knowing has its place in many aspects of the pandemic, including the stress that results, how to manage it, the relationships we maintain (and how we maintain them), and so on, but it has no place in the broader societal management of the pandemic itself; nor does it have a place in public health efforts to overcome the pandemic. These are matters best left for science.

I have heard many complaints from students who are understandably frustrated with the seemingly endless lockdown measures and closures. One of them complained that data shouldn’t be the only thing considered by public health officials when making these decisions. And I get it. The situation is frustrating. We’re all burned out. And it’s easy to feel alienated when the decisions impacting our lives are based on numbers. But what is the alternative, if data and science are not the basis of decision-making in these circumstances? What else is there to go on? The answer, of course, is personal opinion. And if that’s all we have, the next question is much more troubling: Who’s opinion should we listen to? Consider the unrelated example of same-sex adoption: Many still object to gay couples adopting children, maintaining the belief that children require both a mom and a dad for healthy development. Aside from the fact that this view devalues single parents everywhere, there is simply no evidence to support it. Decades of science and research have determined with confidence that children raised by same-sex parents are not deficient in any way compared to children raised by straight couples. How was this conclusion reached? Through objective study of the world—by examining actual children of same-sex parents over time.

Imagine, in the above example, if public policy were determined not by science and research but rather by personal opinion. Or worse still, imagine if it were determined by religion.

The reality of living in any society, however unfortunate to some, is that everyone simply cannot have it their way. Everyone can’t be right. Without a reliance on objectively verifiable, evidence-based data, collective problems like a pandemic quickly devolve into a kind of entitlement war, with the biggest, strongest, and most popular members of society getting what they want, and numerous others being left to the wayside. (And as it has been the case throughout history, those left to the wayside are typically those already marginalized and disenfranchised to begin with.) Science and objectivity by no means leave everyone unscathed (they’re not perfect), but they do allow public health officials to minimize the impact to the extent that it is as fair and equitable as possible within the constraints of the system itself (all things considered); and to the extent that the impact on the average citizen and the population as a whole is lower than it would be otherwise. They also enable the assessment of future risk, which on the scale of entire communities and societies is simply not possible through personal forms of knowing. The human mind cannot calculate such risk.

Without science and data, a democratic society cannot function, and it will not endure, whether in a pandemic or outside of it. Consider also the (unfounded) concern by some that COVID-19 mandates are authoritarian in nature. Around the world, citizens have protested such mandates for this very reason. But imagine the state of things if public health policy weren’t guided by science, but rather by some belief, or mere faith? In this alternate reality, the personal opinion of some powerful individual or group would likely take its place, and they would surely not have the best interests of the population in mind (if we’ve learned anything from the past). And that is the real recipe for authoritarianism.

Research has indeed found correlations between historical pathogen prevalence and authoritarian governance around the world. As countries have encountered more infectious diseases in the past, they have been inclined to follow convention for the sake of following convention (likely out of fear), and often at the expense of individual freedoms far greater than those compromised for the sake of public health and safety. While it is true that pandemics are ripe opportunities for authoritarianism to gain hold, objectivity and science are in their truest forms preventative devices in the face of tyranny. Democracy and freedom thrive on collective varieties of truth, because they are only possible with an agreed upon notion of what is true and what is false. Are vaccines safe? This question can only be answered though extensive data collection and analysis, not through personal opinion. Is climate change real, and is it caused by human activity? These questions can only be answered though rigorous scientific study of the world and complex statistical modelling, not through belief. It is only when collective truth is buried or denied that authoritarian motives are able to grab hold. Like a free press, science helps maintain a level playing field between a government and its populace.

With the rise of misinformation and disinformation online, as well as increasing narcissism and egocentrism in the population at large, personal belief and opinion are overtaking objective knowledge, and all too often in a way that undermines science-based efforts to support the very population in question. The problem is, there are people in the world who still strive to gain power and control in crises of this nature; there are those who still aim to exploit the fears of others for their own benefit. (And there are, unfortunately, those who find satisfaction in chaos.) But these people are not the same people working to get us out of this mess. And they are certainly not the scientists and doctors who have dedicated their lives to such endeavors as medicine, public health, and immunology. (Some simple reasoning should tell us that.) Misinformation and disinformation are the true propaganda of our age (not science), as they manipulate individuals’ personal sense of knowing in ways that erode the very notion of truth and knowledge. And they are anything but communal. Though the result may not be outright fascism in every instance, it will certainly always include sweeping social division (as we have seen)—because everyone can’t be right.

But in a sense, perhaps, everyone can. Personal states of knowing are adequate sources of truth in strictly personal affairs. Whether extracted from religion, spirituality, or neither, one’s personal sense of the world matters in countless ways, and it always will. (It’s a big part of what makes us human.) It is only in communal matters—those relevant to numerous individuals and society as a whole—that one must concede their sense of personal knowing (at least to a degree) and accept the knowledge that results from more objective approaches to truth. I am not suggesting that a critical mind be abandoned; to the contrary, I am suggesting that greater critical thinking, which is predicated on objectivity, be used. (And yes, people should ask questions, and government decision-making should be transparent.) I am not calling for the outright surrender of autonomy or consent, either, but rather the humility and open-mindedness required to accept the simple truth that one person cannot know what is right in every situation. And I am not asking for the suppression of intuition, but rather resignation to the intuitive reality that any one person’s sense of knowing is not the only in existence, and that at any given time, any one sense of knowing may be wrong. Because we’re only human, and we can’t all be right.

It’s a reconciliation with science as much as it’s a reconciliation with the very notion of what it means to live in a society. As we navigate this pandemic, wading through all the misinformation and social division (all the Trumpian politics and Joe Rogan podcasts); and as we face more dire threats like conflict and climate change, the need for reconciliation between the personal and the collective is more important than ever. It is only through collective paths to truth and knowledge that we have come this far as a species, and it is the only way we’ll move forward.

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