Tag Archives: science and religion

God’s Wormhole

Can God and science mix? I suppose that the third season of Through the Wormhole would be the place to look. The entire season has a distinctly metaphysical feel to it, so it is no surprise that the final episode is entitled “Did We Invent God?” It’s also no surprise that, like the other metaphysical issues explored, no resolution is really offered. Interviewing psychologists and neurologists, the show attempts to parse how scientists might address the question of God’s reality. God, of course, being immaterial, is normally understood not to be a subject discerned by science. So instead of putting God under the microscope, human perceptions of God will have to do. Everything from theory of mind to magical beliefs are probed to find hints of whence this strange idea of God might have come. The answer: we don’t know.

The more I pondered this, the more the same result reflected on science itself. When I was growing up I thought science was the truth. If science “proved” something, there was no arguing the point. I have come to realize, however, that science must be falsifiable to be science. That means it is potentially wrong. Not that it goes as far as Creationists take it to say that something is “only a theory,” but rather that science is the best explanation that we have at the moment. Future discoveries could falsify what we now know and the science textbooks would have to be rewritten. The difference here with religion is that most belief systems do not admit of this possibility. The truth has already been revealed, and there is no adding to or taking from it. God is not falsifiable. As stated above, God is not subject to science.

I don’t expect these observations of mind to change anybody’s ideas of the world. I do hope, however, that they make clear that science and metaphysics find themselves in similar situations. Both strive to know the truth. Neither can know if they’ve arrived. Both can believe it. The final episode of the season raises this point starkly. People are hardwired to believe. What they believe in is open to many possibilities, but believe they will. From my earliest days I have taken belief very seriously. What I have believed has changed over the decades, but at each step along the way I believed it was the truth at that time. I don’t know the truth. Nobody does. We all, whether scientist or religious, believe that we have found it. At the moment.

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: CorvinZahn, Wikimedia Commons

Contacting Faith

Contact_0001Sometime after the movie Contact came out, I saw it while on a flight to somewhere here or there. As with most movies on airplanes, it didn’t receive my full attention and I seem to recall not hearing a lot of the sound. Having always been intrigued by the possibility of aliens, however, I told myself I’d watch it again. Several months ago I did just that, but as Carl Sagan hoped, much of the story had become somewhat dated. I finally finished reading the novel, and this was a case of the book being better than the movie (as is frequently the case). A number of things surprised me about the story, the primary one being just how prominent religion is in the plot. In the movie some crazy preacher sabotages the first machine just as it’s nearing completion, and even though Ellie Arroway is long connected to Palmer Joss, their relationship doesn’t seem to dominate the script the way it does the book.

Almost immediately upon reading about adult Ellie, it became clear that religion was a major interest that Carl Sagan had. While the chiliasts receive many scathing comments throughout the novel, thoughtful Christian thinkers, such as Palmer, find a way of being taken seriously by Ellie, despite her own personal unbelief. Unable to understand how someone could not accept the evidence before their eyes, she wants to belittle religion but can’t when serious thinkers like Palmer remind her that they have a sophisticated worldview as well. The story represents a long struggle between alternative outlooks. While as a novel it doesn’t always flow, it pulls the reader along, partly based on the intriguing character of Sagan himself.

Carl Sagan believed in life on other planets. He was less sanguine about the possibility of either ancient astronauts or current-day visitors from space, but he kept an open mind. While he was the respected author of numerous scientific papers, other astronomers didn’t always know what to make of such a popularizer. Of course I never knew him, but I have to wonder if his true beliefs didn’t appear in his fiction rather than in his factual writing. At times I found the novel slow and plodding, and as the machine gives ambiguous results, I wondered where the rest of the story could go. Sagan profoundly brings the end back to belief. Without evidence, Ellie finds herself in the place of the religious who believe on the basis of experience and faith alone. And she finds her best friend is a clergyman. Contact, with its God-like aliens, is really a story of finding oneself a place in an infinite universe. To do that well, Sagan seems to have believed, requires both science and religion.

Drumheller Drama

Those who’ve participated in the great drive out west—if you’ve done it you know what I mean—have passed through the range of dinosaurs. Actually, dinosaurs can be found here in the east; New Jersey once had a reputation of the home of the hadrosaurus, before an even larger beast took over the state. In my native Pennsylvania the occasional dinosaur footprint would be found. But to really see the dinosaurs, the west is best. In Makoshika State Park you can find triceratops skulls right out on the ground. You can find plenty of Christians as well. Ironically, we’ve advertised to the world that Christians and dinosaurs don’t mix, but, in fact, they can get along just fine. In a BBC story my wife sent me, one of Canada’s great western dinosaur reserves, Drumheller, Alberta, has a potential clash between sauropods and savior. Seen from one angle, at least. The story by Tom Holland points out conflicting wills for an entrepreneur who wants to build a dinosaur display and a long-established passion play that occupies the space he wants.

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News doesn’t get read without some measure of drama, so Holland pits the dinosaurs against the Christians. What seems to me, however, as the real issue is entrepreneurial expansion versus what seems like an arcane melodrama, the reenactment of Jesus’ death. Ironically, the greater part of North America was colonized by Christians of various descriptions. Many of them established their culture in various ways across the landscape. As a culture, it wasn’t always belligerent, and sometimes even beneficial. Passion plays, once upon a time, were considered the mark of culture. Jesus, I’m sure, knew nothing of dinosaurs but would have had no problem with them, I contend, if he had.

The issue here is less about science versus religion as it is about cash versus culture. Even Ahab turned his face to the wall when he couldn’t have the land that he wanted. If someone else got there first and made a recurring shrine, does capitalism have the right to slough it out of the way? I love dinosaurs. I’ve driven many miles out the way to see dinosaur trackways far beyond the trodden path. These are but shadows of footprints cast millions of years ago. Both dinosaurs and Jesus have their place in our hallowed past. While pictures of Jesus riding dinosaurs may well be over the top, the message perhaps rings true: there’s no inherent conflict here. When someone wants to make quick cash, however, there will always be sacrificial victims involved.

Old Curiosity Shop

I’m not sure how I’ve managed to live in New Jersey eight years without discovering the Old Book Shop in Morristown. Used books represent the opportunity to find things otherwise hidden away, even often from the all-seeing internet. That’s why I visit book sales at any opportunity, and haunt used bookstores. The Cranbury Bookworm, never easy to reach, was denuded of its glory by a greedy landlord and has only a few shelves remaining in a much diminished location. The Montclair Book Center takes a concerted bit of driving from here, but I always enjoy it when I go. Over the weekend, however, the Old Book Shop was my destination. Although it’s not a large space, the books on display are reasonably priced and represent intelligent collecting. I found a book or two on my wish list there, and many more that, were I in a more lucrative line of work, would have come home with me.

One book my daughter found in the science section, Ecce Coelum; or Parish Astronomy, by a Connecticut Pastor, was clearly from the days when science and religion got along better together. A little research revealed the author as Enoch Fitch Burr. What really caught my eye was the dedication, “lectures on astronomy in the interest of religion.” I’m not sure how I managed to leave that book behind, in retrospect. As a layman both in science in religion terms, I have had lifelong interests in both. It’s only been within the last couple of decades that I’ve noticed a growing tension between the siblings. Like all childhood fights, it is a contested matter of who started it. It does trace its roots back to Galileo and Bruno, but more recently to the Creationists and their never-ending campaigns to have their religion christened science. Back when Ecce Coelum was written, science and religion had much to learn from one another.

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Now they no longer speak. Those who believe all answers lie in material explanations treat religion as a mental disease. The conservative religionists call the scientists atheists, as if that were still an insult. Name calling and bad feelings, I don’t believe, will ever lead to the truth. The science of today will eventually find its way into the used bookstores of tomorrow. Religion books have long lined these shelves, reminding me of the day when she was the queen of sciences. She’s often treated as the jester these days. What scientist now declares, “behold the heavens!”? We might actually benefit to a great degree if both the empirical and the ecclesiastical would behold their world with a little more wonder. And tomorrow’s readers will puzzle at our strange hardness of heart.

Doubt No Alleles

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

Image credit: Zephyris, Wikimedia Commons

DNA. Is there anything it can’t do? For many decades anthropologists have built painstaking methods to trace developments in human culture. Those of us who’ve studied linguistics in any fashion remember well the many times instructors corrected our false cognates and pointed out family trees of languages that showed who came from whom, based on subtle shifts of orthography or some other aspect of philology. Entire careers could be made in ancient Near Eastern studies by shuffling around the way words were formed and speculating about how they influenced one another. Then DNA. A recent story in the New York Times demonstrates that DNA studies now tell us whence came the Europeans. Among the three groups that eventually settled in Europe were agriculturalists from the Near East, coming along at just about the same time as the Sumerians show up in southern Iraq. They joined the hunter-gatherers already in situ. Their languages, however, did not dominate as a third group, from western Russia showed up and gave (according to DNA) many of the groups their base languages. And here I thought Latin and Greek and Anglo-Saxon had something to do with it.

No doubt we’ve benefitted much from learning about DNA. We can fight diseases that were mysterious, if not divine, in previous centuries. We can learn how closely we’re related to other animal species, or even the neighbor next door. Sneaky fathers can be determined with a precision that sometimes puzzles, such as the recent story of twins who had different biological fathers. Without DNA such a thing could only have been a myth. I wonder, however, what we’re losing in terms of humanity. I suppose we’ll still need a few archaeologists to dig up the remains for scientists to date. And many traditional cultures will still insist that the human remains uncovered be reinterred and not probed and prodded, even after death. We’ll call them backward and superstitious. We’ll consult the genome and decide who to marry.

Meanwhile some hopeless romantic will insist on sitting off in a corner and composing sonnets to the woman he irrationally loves. Looking at the nighttime sky, he may compare her to the beauty of the moon. We know it is a lifeless rock trapped in our own gravity, mechanically reflecting the light of a burning ball of hydrogen and helium 93 million miles away. And if she’ll run this cotton swab across the inside of her cheek we might well be able to tell if she’s a good choice for mating purposes. We’ll also be able to determine the origins of her ancestors and remove a great deal of the mystery about her—there! Won’t that be better than having to woo her and find all that out for yourself? And when your children grow up you’ll point them to the STEM disciplines, since that is the only direction in which there is any human future. And the anthropologists can join scholars of religion as we wait for someone to put the soup in our bowls.

Science v. Evil

Can we eliminate evil? More than a question of metaphysics, this is also the title of an episode of the third season of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noted before that this particular season has been delving more profoundly into areas once reserved for religious thought. Evil is perhaps the most religious of topics, as distinguishing good from evil is at the heart of many religious traditions. Fast forward from the founding of your favorite religion to today. In order to answer the question of whether or not we can eliminate evil, we turn to neuroscience rather than any sacred book. Looking at brain scans, the scientists of Through the Wormhole have isolated areas that indicate who might be a sociopath—a convenient measure of evil—and also who might be less empathetic than whom. Perhaps drugs could be developed to inhibit sociopathic behavior and tendencies. As always, these episodes leave me somewhat distressed.

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Losing my long-term position in higher education “without cause” threw me into mental turmoil. Never one to use medications for a long term, I was shattered when my doctor suggested anti-depressants. Would this chemical, designed to “correct” my brain chemistry change who I was? The morning the treatment began, I hesitated to take the first pill, staring long at it and wondering if the person I’d been would be lost forever. I hated being on the prescription. Worse, it was a medication that you couldn’t simply stop. The drop in anti-depressants could bring me dangerously low. Although my employment situation hasn’t radically improved since then, I eventually weaned myself from the prescription. Looking back now, I see that time as an interlude in who I was, depression and all. Mine was, thankfully, a mild case. It has, nevertheless, left me wondering about the nature of evil.

Extremely empathetic, I have never had sociopathic tendencies. I care for insects and amphibians, as well as my fellow humans. I react to the emotions of others. Yet, like all people, I suspect, I know that I’ve got my own personal evils with which to struggle. I wonder if it is a matter of degree. Religions often suggest that the solution to evil is repentance and taking the decision to live a new life. What if one’s brain, however, prevents that? Would the administration of a drug amount to a kind of salvation? And what of those theologies based on concepts of human depravity—can neuroscience prove them wrong? When the moral questions are raised, the physical solutions offer answers. Can we ever reconcile belief and biology? The jury may never come back with a verdict on that one.

Scientific Voices

BarmaidsBrainScience requires translation. Even very intelligent people in other fields of study have trouble understanding what scientists have been saying. That’s why science writers are so important. They can distill the heady knowledge that empirical method produces into a palatable tipple for the laity. Jay Ingram’s The Barmaid’s Brain is one such digestible report. As the subtitle (And Other Strange Tales from Science) indicates, this book is about the weird world of science’s often hidden charms. We all pretty much know that quantum mechanics has turned conventional wisdom on its head. We also know (courtesy of the media) that science and religion fight like cats and dogs. What we don’t see is that scientists often disagree on how to interpret data, particularly on the weird end of things. Ingram tells many such interesting tales from nature, psychology, and technology.

The essays in the book are loosely grouped into areas with some common theme. The psychology story that struck me as being particularly appropriate for this blog was the one about Joan of Arc. Joan, as most of us learned from history, was a prodigy. Illiterate, female, and poor, she nevertheless displayed a military genius that led her to the head of a French army trying to hold off the advances of the English. When turned over to the enemy she was treated as a witch, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake. Later she became a saint. The reason that she’s in a book of science essays is that Ingram wonders what exactly was going on when she heard voices and saw visions. Neuroscientists have devised ways of peering into the brain during religious experiences, and psychologists have constructed theories of why otherwise sane people hear voices. Joan doesn’t fit into the category that used to be called schizophrenia, nor does she appear to have been in any way insane. She was religious and her religion spoke to her.

When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual for scientists to be believers. Nothing was wrong with believing in a god and studying the physical world. Indeed, the idea went back to Isaac Newton and other scientists of the first generation of the Enlightenment. Implications eventually led to the utter absence of deity from the world. People such as Joan were understood as sadly misled by a religion that could not be distinguished from magic. Yet Joan, as Ingram well knows, would hardly be a household name without her visions and her faith. At the end of the analysis, Joan rises from the couch still a mystery. An enigma to science, and suspect to many religious. She was, it seems to me, quintessentially human. We are all, it seems, whether saints or scientists, subject to what empirical evidence will allow us to believe. Most of the time, anyway.