Tag Archives: science and religion

DOA

Wormhole3Perhaps it’s just me, but the third season of Through the Wormhole has taken a dramatically metaphysical turn. I always run behind the time when it comes to media; I know that the season is long passed. I started watching Through the Wormhole shortly after the first season became available on DVD. Science has always been an abiding interest of mine, and I face it as someone raised religious and wondering whence lies the truth. (“Through the wormhole,” for the record, is where it might be found according to Morgan Freeman in the opening voiceover.) The third season, through which I’m currently making my way, has begun to raise disturbing questions about life and mortality that start to highlight some of the more Frankensteinian aspects to human curiosity. I recently watched the episode “Can We Resurrect the Dead?”

In the world with which I am familiar, resurrection has always been a religious issue. I grew up with a strong notion of the afterlife, and it was suggested to me that survival beyond death was assured. But the resurrection that various scientists are now exploring is of a different order. For those who can afford the increasingly astronomical costs of top medical care, resurrection is not such an unusual thing. Only, when your body is resuscitated, you wake up the the same weary body that just died. So some of the scientists interviewed suggest that if we can reverse the death “mechanism” that is apparently built into our own mitochondria, we might be able to bring back the dead. Even more bizarre are those called “life loggers” who wear devices to record their experiences in life so that they can be uploaded and preserved. A consciousness digitized and stored on a hard drive heaven for all eternity. Meanwhile a scientist smoking a cigarette in Japan shows us a robot straight from the uncanny valley that looks almost like him and is sent to do some of his lectures in his place.

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that resurrection used to be somewhat simpler. It was a matter of following the right doctrine and living a life worthy of being continued after this one ends. Now it is a matter of peering through a microscope, or trying to capture on mere devices the multitude of experiences that flood us daily, making us human. Can our future, digital selves really experience human emotion? All those pictures taken while riding a bike—will they convey the effort of balance learned as a child, the sensation of a self-generated breeze on my face, the wonderful weary sensation in my legs upon stepping off? What of that hint of lilac in the air that I picked up momentarily on the wind? Will eternal life, missing the actual life be worth it? I think Victor Frankenstein discovered the answer to that almost two centuries ago.

Strange Days

The flight from London to New York is eight hours. Although I always travel with books, sometimes the selection made before the actual reality of time on a plane turns out to be too academic. I read academic books on my daily commute from New Jersey to New York and back, but these trips are not so drawn out as the long flight across the Atlantic. Since my flight was departing Terminal 2 at Heathrow, I had trouble finding a bookstore. There are stores that sell books, but having been to Blackwell’s the day before, the selection was not inspiring. I wandered to the magazine section. Magazines can be good travel fodder since they don’t demand the rigors of a monograph, and glossy pictures always add to the appeal. But what to buy?

ForteanTimesLooking over the covers, I found one featuring vampires. It turned out to be the Fortean Times, but since I had a row to myself on the plane, I couldn’t see the harm in having a magazine about strange phenomena. I’d never actually read an issue of the Fortean Times before, although I had a general idea of what to expect. While it may seem odd, there is a pretty solid connection between the paranormal and religion. I’ve noticed this for years. Reading through the Fortean Times, it was clear that others have made the connection as well. Many of the articles, including the ones on vampires, touched on obvious religious themes and motifs. This was so much the case that I began to wonder if any kind of solid wall can be erected between the two.

Religion, broadly conceived, tends to be concerned with the non-material world. Its claims tend to defy empirical verification, and its subject matter is often at odds with science (at least in the mainstream). The paranormal is open to scientific investigation in that it tends to be based on secular claims. Like religion, however, it tends to dwell in the non-material realm. After all, vampires coming back from the dead is hardly a phenomenon that is readily recorded with any instrument beyond a Hollywood movie camera. Still, most religions are hostile to the paranormal, and investigators of the paranormal may be unconnected to religion. Both, however, are an engaging recipe for a long flight. Especially if nobody is sitting in the row next to you.

Life Everlasting

ThruTheWormholeThrough the Wormhole is one of those series that keeps me coming back. I’m currently working my way through the second season because it is a show that I take in small doses. The episodes require thought (and often, more importantly, time—something of which I have too little). Watching the installment “Can We Live Forever?” I was astonished by the optimism of the writers and interviewees. Among a cross-section of scientists, at least, there is the belief that we can, and will, dramatically expand human life. To biblical proportions. And that life won’t be a decrepit, declining feebleness. Instead, we can be, to quote one of the scientists, quoting Bob Dylan, “forever young.” Well, maybe not forever, but you get the picture. Of course, God came up quite a bit in this episode. Immortality is the stuff of divinity. The life-force, which much of science denies exists, is strong. No matter how weak or old, we don’t really want to give it up.

Of course, death is the price of life. We live on a finite planet with dwindling resources. If we don’t die, we run out of space for the next generation. Some have postulated that we need to colonize other worlds—just the thing that got Europeans in trouble in the first place—in order to make room. Room for us. The dominant species. No doubt, we are “programmed” to age and die. As far as we know, all animals are. Even plants. That is to say, life as we know it ends in death. If it doesn’t, can it truly be called life? I would be fascinated to live for a long while and see what we can make of this world. Not the greatest fan of technology, still, I’m impressed how far we’ve come in the brief time I’ve spent on this planet. And I do wonder where we’ll end up. In my mind, however, there always is an end. Even to this infinite universe, about the heat-death of which I’ve often read. What gives us the right to live longer than nature dictates?

It is, surely, a matter of degree. These glasses perched on my nose certainly have prolonged my life beyond what nature would dictate. The vitamin pills I swallow, the fabrics that keep me warm while wicking away perspiration, the things physicians can stop in their germy tracks. We already prolong life. Nevertheless, the century mark has always been symbolically our final goal and sign post that it’s time to hand things over. Thus it was in the beginning. The Bible makes clear that, although the antediluvians lived centuries rather than decades, this was never intended as the lot of the majority. No, we were born to die. We live through our children. The thought of eternity is scary. Especially when we think of how humans are. Those who can afford to live the longest are likely those who least deserve to do so. Do we want to live forever with the plutocrats in charge? Perhaps there’s a reason that we all take that final bow. Still, I can never listen to “Forever Young” without getting misty eyed and imagining the possibilities.

Exobiology

Are we alone in the universe? The answer is every day growing more and more certain that we are not. Humanity may experience shortages of many things, however, pride is not among them. For millennia we’ve been convinced of our own superiority and, of late, we’ve become convinced that we must be as good as it gets. We’ve mastered logic and our material world. We’ve sent probes to land on Venus and Mars, and flying by just about every other planetary body close enough to reach. We sure are smart. So it stands to reason that we are the brightest beings in a universe that we tell ourselves is infinite. A recent article on Exobiology that my wife pointed out to me on The Conversation, traces the history of the idea of life outside the earth. Not surprisingly, the idea has its origins in religious thought.

Giordano Bruno was an early modern Dominican who was burned at the stake for his heresies. Like his near contemporary Galileo, he was fascinated by the sky and postulated that the world up there could be full of life. A church increasingly under pressure from the pesky Protestant movement had no time for flights of fancy among the faithful. No, religion at the time wanted its feet planted on solid ground. The only life up there was angels and God. Still, the idea had been broached. Since the world’s major religions have been geocentric, as a rule, they’ve had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the idea of the other other. God as other is one thing, other creatures as other is quite another. How do earth-bound religions account for the possibility of life in space? This is not merely academic fancy at play. We will almost certainly discover life elsewhere—whether it comes to us (or already may have), or we go to it (which might take a little longer), we will discover that a universe that is infinite has infinite possibilities. Will religion keep us grounded?

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Ironically, one of the areas where science and religion have broadly agreed is in the superiority of humankind. Both remain staunchly geocentric. Religions and tend to say we’re sinful, but other than that, pretty much the best the earth has to offer. Although biologists say evolution is non-teleological, they still have a hard time imagining something more advanced than us. We are pretty self-absorbed. Meanwhile, we are discovering water is likely not unique to earth. Rocky planets seem to be the rule rather than the exception. And there are billions and billions of stars in our own galaxy alone, among billions of others. What are the chances we’re alone? Virtually none. Here is one place that both religion and science might learn a lesson based on early spiritual teachings. In the face of the unknown, humility is the most logical response. I’m impressed in how far we’ve come in the last several millennia of civilization. I think, however, that we’d better be prepared to meet exobiology with a realization that Genesis 1 was only the beginning.

Scientific Seminary

Old Testament. New Testament. Church History. Pastoral Theology. Systematic Theology. Homiletics/Liturgics. This was a typical kind of seminary curriculum about a quarter-century ago. Obviously there were variations, but the basic topics were Bible and its application. When I attended seminary science was already in the ascendent (seriously, it wasn’t that long ago!). Nobody much worried about how it might impact religion. People in the United States still attended church in large numbers but no one I knew really considered science a threat to belief. They were essentially different realms of inquiry and although some on each side asserted the superiority of their enterprise, the debate seemed to be good-spirited and without excessive rancor.

IMG_1656The situation has, of course, shifted radically since then. We’ve become a society guided by business principles and technology, and religion has all the appearances of being quaint at best, likely just useless, and, at worst, dangerous and deadly. Civilization, however, was built on the premises of a religion that permeated every aspect of life. That influence has been slowly replaced by that of a materialistic reductionism that suggests all things, this blog included, are but the random results of dry atoms bumping about a cold universe. Naturally there has been a reaction. The most vocal of believers, the Fundamentalists of all stripes, have directly challenged science in the arena of veracity. As we all know, however, Fundamentalists aren’t really equipped to convince the masses. The Bible, the underlying strength of the literalist, has come under scrutiny and has been demonstrated to be more inclined to myth than history. What more does a scientific worldview need to weld shut its superior outlook? And yet, reasoning, non-reactive religion still exists. Still has a place in this mechanistic universe where miracles are disallowed.

I recently read about a Templeton Foundation initiative that is funding programs on religion and science at seminaries. Some scientists excoriate the Templeton Foundation for trying to keep religion in the picture, but my humble opinion is that Templeton and its money have nothing to do with it. Religion is a very human response to a universe it can’t fully understand. Empirical method seems to work, and the results are so complex that few can even hope to comprehend. All but the most hopeless, on the other hand, can understand “love thy neighbor.” Religion continues to guide countless lives—most of them for the good, and not for the incendiary responses of a challenged literalism. The time has come for seminary curricula to adjust to the world as we know it. That world is run by inhuman forces that may help or harm humanity in equal measure. Religion, however, need not battle with science. It must, however, add it to the curriculum.

Catholic Nones

In a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an article pondered the future of Catholic universites in an age of nones—those who don’t affiliate with any religious tradition. As with so much in life, the evidence countermands expectations. Enrollment is stable and even non-Catholics are attending. Part of this, no doubt, is because a greater number of high school students are being channeled into college, but there seems to be more to it than that. Those interviewed suggest that it is often that students, nones included, favor an education with a moral grounding. Materialism doesn’t give one much to go on besides human convention. Even if students don’t accept Catholicism, there’s no doubt that the Catholic Church presents itself in a way that admits little doubt over what’s right or wrong. Even if you choose not to observe the strictures, there’s a comfort in know they’re there.

One of the schools foregrounded in the article is Marquette University in Milwaukee. While at Nashotah House I came to know some members of the Theology Department there, and I visited the campus numerous times. One of the interlocutors in the article is a physics professor who, admitting concerns at first, has found Marquette—a Jesuit university—remarkably open to science. The days of Galileo are over. Even Catholics know science is science. Indeed, the Vatican itself employs scientists and a Catholic priest was the first person to formally postulate the Big Bang. As someone who has applied to many Catholic universities over the years, and who has had a fair number of interviews, my sense is that the close-mindedness comes with theology, not science.

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Especially in the days of retrenchment under John Paul II, control over hiring for religion (“theology”) faculty at Catholic schools underwent renewed scrutiny. I was informed that I was not selected for positions because I was not Catholic. You could, however, be a none physicist and land a job. This discrepancy of knowledge has led me to fine tune the Chronicle’s question a bit. The Catholic Church is well funded. Its universities would only be in danger from radical drops in student numbers. This favors the hiring of mainstream professors in every discipline. Except religion. It is as if this small presence on a large campus, such as Notre Dame, could hold out against the humanist knowledge emanating from every other department. A candle, as it were, in the hurricane. And that candle, amid all the nones, must accept official doctrine. At least on paper. And all will be well.

Thinking about the Universe

Conscious Universe Notwithstanding appearances, I have been reading. Despite the determination, disruptions to my commuting schedule always throw me off a bit. Having recently read The Holographic Universe, I decided to follow it up with The Conscious Universe. Subtitled The Scientific Truth of Psychic Phenomena, Dean Radin’s book is one of those that you don’t want other commuters examining too closely, although, however, they probably should. Radin is a fully credentialed scientist who has a rare trait: a willingness to follow where the evidence leads. Respectful of traditional scientific method and even mainstream science writing, Radin demonstrates in this book just how risky it is to go against the trends that are like deeply rutted wagon tracks over a sun-baked prairie. Science progresses by examining the evidence, but today science is, in some senses, over-reacting to the refusal of religious thought to, well, give up the spirit. Religion persists and rationalists can’t understand why. Investigating “spooky effects at a distance” is not entirely welcome in such a climate.

Radin, however, approaches psi with scientific rigor. Laboratory experiments, as he thoroughly demonstrates, have revealed with greater evidence than many readily accepted theories, that there is something behind psi. In fact, the government and private industry have invested, and continue to invest, in it. And in our more unguarded moments, most people will generally admit that sometimes coincidences are a little too odd, or that you might, from time to time, really be able to send a thought to someone else. The laboratory results, as Radin clearly shows, are simply dismissed as aberrations because they don’t fit into preconceived (frequently materialistic) worldviews. It is far easier to laugh than to sort out how all of this might actually work.

There is no triumphalism in this. It is simply the willingness to ask honest questions. Quantum mechanics, as physicists know, are not always as mechanistic as they seem. Even Einstein was willing to keep an open mind concerning the larger picture. The universe we envision today is not the same as that which Einstein knew. It isn’t easy to summarize what Radin is addressing in his book, but if I were to try I would say something like this: consciousness is essential. I know materialists dismiss essence, but I believe the evidence goes against them here. Consciousness is an integral part of the universe, and we can’t even define it yet so that all parties agree. If we don’t know what it is, how can we possibly know what it might not be able to do? Radin does what seems to be the only logical response in such a situation: he keeps an open mind.