Tag Archives: science and religion

News from around the Universe

In the last couple of weeks two large-scale news items caught my attention. One describes how a newly discovered galaxy is made up of mostly dark matter. The other tells how a new fossil find in Greenland may push the origins of life on earth back to 3.7 billion years ago. If you read my blog, you know that I’m a frustrated scientist. I’ve always tried to follow the developments in the field and even considered it as a profession until I ran into the wall of mathematics. Ran into the wall, banged up the car beyond repair, and was barely able to walk away. That’s the breaks in a world where ambition and ability aren’t the same thing. So I have to take my science like baby-food, mashed and strained before it makes its way to my brain. I know I’m not alone in this—the whole field of “humanities” proves that. (Originally science (astronomy) was one of the humanities, but oh how we’ve grown!)

Into the storm

Such frightening things as mathematics aside, these are exciting stories. I’ve been looking around this galaxy quite a bit, and I can believe dark matter outweighs light matter and I’ve never even been off the earth. The story is encouraging because it shows just how much we have yet to learn. Nothing could be more exciting for an erstwhile educator. The opportunity to stretch one’s mind should never be taken lightly. At the same time as dark matter is growing, so is the age of life on earth. I have to admit that I’ve not even been to Greenland, but the idea that life began so soon after the earth formed has cosmic implications. If we were such fast starters, doesn’t that suggest that elsewhere in the universe the same may be true? Ironically, here on earth uniformitarianism is considered a foundation of science. But once you get off earth scientists are reluctant to say the same processes could have happened elsewhere. But what do I know? I’m still trying to figure out trigonometry.

Earthbound I may be. Humble humanities specialist from start to finish. Nevertheless it is an amazing time to be alive. Once we’ve figured out that human brains—products of evolution that they are—aren’t capable of ultimate comprehension, we’ll be able to bask in the light of billions and billions of suns and raise a glass with our cosmic neighbors, made of light matter or dark, and proudly say that we’ve made some real advances at last.

Intelligent Life

arewesmartPerhaps the most pervasive trait of religion is its ability to construct worldviews. Even when the religion is eventually abandoned, the worldview remains. Most scientists would deny that religion lies behind their perspectives, but in the case of human exceptionalism it remains the most logical cause. I always eagerly await new books by Frans de Waal. Ever since I read his book on empathy and apes, I couldn’t wait for the next one. His latest book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, although the title is a mouthful, does not disappoint. As I’ve noted before about his works, de Waal is perhaps the most sensible person writing in science today. He considers the evidence and takes his own biases into account. In a competitive world where science money is often doled out to those who can exclude others, de Waal is willing to leave the door open when the evidence demands it.

What is really ironic is that evolution has become the line in the sand between biblical literalists and science. As de Waal points out, the idea that people are different from the animals from which they evolved—in some qualitative way—is an idea based on religion. Many scientists still hold to it in a way that can only be described as, well, religious. This is very strange when evolution works by gradual changes over long periods of time. When did humans gain whatever trait that separates them from “the animals”? When I was a child it was tool use. When that was disproved, it became language. When that was disproved it became consciousness. The latter is the safest since nobody really knows what it is. As de Waal amply demonstrates the Behaviorist school was clearly wrong about animals (including humans). What no Behaviorist wants to admit is that the idea that we alone are conscious comes from the cultural interpretation of the Bible.

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is, like many of de Waal’s books, full of wonderful observations of the ways animals actually behave. They solve problems. They learn from experience. They anticipate the future. In some cases they have been shown to outperform humans on cognitive tasks. And yet we still insist that people are somehow different. Better. Interestingly this is one area where religions and science tend to agree. People are just more important than animals. I wonder if one of the underlying reasons—not addressed by de Waal—is that we have come to depend on a lifestyle that unfairly exploits animals. After all, we eat them, use them for work, and even experiment on them. If we admit that they are intelligent we would need to, yes, rethink all of this. Given what’s happening in the world today, it is perhaps time to admit what we don’t really know.

Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

Simply Beautiful

Simple BeautyThe scientific method has been a boon to humanity. Knowing how to sharpen the rational faculties has demonstrated its benefits time and time again. Sometimes, however, overemphasis on rationality contains hidden costs. Humans are not always rational, and sometimes this is a very good thing. Culturally we’re told that reason trumps emotion and that evolution has somehow led us to this. That’s only part of the story. Marcelo Gleiser’s excellent The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected serves as a wonderful corrective to this one-sided view. Although I’ve been trained in rationalistic thinking, my humanities background lacks the credibility of similar training in the sciences. Gleiser, as a physicist, demands respect. As he notes throughout this book, physics asks the hard questions. The only proper response, he rightly declares, is humility. Arrogance in any human endeavor may make for a good story, but it is bad citizenship on this planet.

I have to confess to being one of those poor souls who really doesn’t care about fishing that Gleiser mentions early on in his book. That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with his outlook and mature thoughts on the subject. Using fly-fishing as a kind of bait, he draws the reader in to consider some deep and meaningful questions about life. Although he describes fishing literally, he clearly has a metaphorical usage in mind as well. Rare is the scientist who will admit that science can’t answer all questions, and moreover, wouldn’t want it to. Showing the limits of rational thought can feel like taking one’s clothes off in front of a crowd for those wedded to empirical evidence. Applied science clearly works very successfully. That’s not the same as having all the answers. Gleiser beautifully illustrates this, acknowledging that the spiritual has a role to play even among the rigorously trained and actually employed of the intelligentsia. This is a very important book.

Admitting that some things happen for which there is no rational explanation, Gleiser advocates for appreciating the wonder rather than trying to force science into situations where its explanatory power fails. This doesn’t happen often—indeed, rarity is what makes the unexpected so wondrous—but when it does happen we need to, like a fisher, accept it as part of the way the art unfolds. In Gleiser’s terms, not every fishing trip is successful. If you always had success, what would be the point in trying? He ventures into the murky waters of religion a time or two, but this is catch-and-release, not for the kill. The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected is an example that includes itself. Those who read it will learn what this means.

Monkey Puzzle

One of the unexpected consequences of Christian theology is the ongoing insistence in science that human beings are qualitatively different from other animals. Actually, it goes back to the Hebrew Bible and the concept of “the image of God.” As the absolute line between human and beast continues to blur (intelligence, tool use, language use—you name it) mainstream teaching has trouble admitting that our special differences aren’t that different. A Washington Post story by Darryl Fears describes how capuchin monkeys have been using tools to extract cashews from their toxic husks for at least 700 years. These monkeys use a two-rock system to get at cashews, which, in their natural state, are inedible. The surprise here is that this makes these monkeys denizens of the Stone Age and capable of teaching complex behavior to their offspring.

Animals watch parents to learn to eat—it might seem to be a simple idea. In reality it’s more complicated than that. As I watched a doe and fawn foraging the other day, it occurred to me that what we call “instinct” is a way of getting around admitting animal intelligence. Why would a newborn (“unconscious”) animal seek to feed, or flee from predators? We call it instinct, but what we really mean is a form of will, a desire to survive. This “will” pervades nature well below the human-animal divide. Plants strive to thrive, and exhibit a “will” to live. By just taking all this for granted and calling it “instinct” we’ve further cut ourselves off from the organic world of which we’re all a part.

Christian culture gave rise to scientific method. No doubt this is an embarrassing scenario for those who believe science should reduce all the wonder of being alive to mathematical equations. Can’t we just pretend that rationality was creeping in from the beginning? Aristotle was going that way wasn’t he? But his work was “lost,” only to be recovered by Muslims who saw the value of such logical thinking and Christians—in an over-simplified history—wanted to catch up. Meanwhile, in the Dark Ages monkeys were using an intricate system to extract tasty nuts from toxic casings without the benefit of any religion at all. The Stone Age, we easily forget, was the first recognizable step on the road to the technological world we inhabit today. And we continue to use an outmoded paradigm to understand our place in that world.

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For the Dogs

DogsThatKnowYou know that feeling of being dropped into a very strange place?  Sure, it’s disorienting for a while, but once you get used to it, you start to enjoy your surroundings.  Now ask yourself: what if my entire way of looking at life is based on a faulty paradigm?  Many, I suspect, will drop out at that point.  There’s strange, and then there’s going too far.  For those wedded to the idea of finding the truth, however, weirdness is part of the journey.  I just finished reading Rupert Sheldrake’s Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.  Yes, it felt like the room was spinning (actually, I read it on the bus, so that might’ve been true a time or two), but it confirmed something I’ve suspected for many years.  The reigning, mechanistic universe paradigm is wrong.  Please don’t take this as an anti-science statement.  Sheldrake is a bona fide scientist, and I’m an avid reader of science books.  It’s not so much that science is wrong as it is that science doesn’t go far enough.  Ever since the Industrial Revolution—not coincidentally—we’ve been informed that the universe is really a giant machine.  We can figure out how it works using this squishy stuff in our heads that insists we can find Pokemon everywhere we look when it’s not busy solving the riddles of the mulitverse.

Sheldrake, who is given a wide berth by many scientists, states what any of us who grew up with pets knows: they know more than they’re saying.  Admitting up front that much of the evidence is anecdotal, Sheldrake provides empirical studies to demonstrate what folk say.  Dogs do know when their owners are coming home, before they are within sight, hearing, or smelling range.  His study, however, isn’t limited to dogs or to knowing when someone’s coming.  Animals, by virtue of their own minds, have abilities that we do not.  Since they don’t speak our language, we assume they are dumb.  In fact, as this book shows, a great many animals know a great deal more than we do.  The question is, if this is the truth why don’t we hear more about it?

We prefer, it seems, our truth to be qualified.  There’s a lot at stake here.  The reigning paradigm keeps us plugged into this corporate machine we’ve devised.  Our lifestyle cannot subsist without the subordination of animals.  We can’t give them abilities we lack, apart from tastiness.  If the universe isn’t a machine, it might open the door for a broader view of reality.  Maybe it is better to be post-Christian, but religion has proven benefits to humans (and perhaps animals).  Why does religion remain in a mechanistic universe?  Perhaps what we call “souls” are the same as “minds” and perhaps they aren’t the same as brains.  If we really do have minds, it is in our best interest to care for them, develop them, and improve them.  It may seem like a strange world indeed where your dog informs your view of reality.  Read Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, however, and see if you don’t find yourself wagging your tale, just a bit.

Kidnapped by Religion

The title is, unfortunately, not mine. My wife sent me a story on NPR entitled “Humility Is Embedded In Doing Science, But What About Spirituality?” by Barbara J. King. The piece is largely an interview with physicist Marcelo Gleiser about his new book, The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected. Of course, now it’s on my reading list. The interview treads the well-worn path of science versus religion. Science is presented as humble (which I don’t doubt, when in the right hands—or the right minds, rather) while religion is arrogant, claiming to know everything. Gleiser states that spirituality has been “kidnapped by religion” but still has a place in the life of a scientist. I wish there were more of them like Gleiser.

Now, I have to admit my data are limited. I read science books—I have since I was a teenager—but with a layman’s eye. My scientist dreams were dashed against the unyielding rocks of complex mathematics, something evolution cruelly withheld from my gray matter. I wouldn’t have survived high school pre-calc without my younger brother’s help. I’ve nevertheless read the pre-chewed, partly-digested science regurgitated for the formulaically challenged, and find myself, like Glieser, awed at the wonder of it all. Still, I also find many scientists—at least those with the loudest voices—claiming that what they’ve discovered is all there is. There is only matter, and we with our three-pound brains have figured it all out, by the gods, without the gods! We know all that can possibly be known will conform to the system our brains have developed, and there are no gods out there and no spirits in here and that pang you’re feeling in your gut is merely physiological, not spiritual.

I haven’t read The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, but I have found many scientists walking the same trail I’m on. We are those who are seeking the truth, and who don’t assume the answers. Religion need not be arrogant. At its best, it’s not far from science. As a species, we have developed rationality extremely well (even if we fail to use it). Much of biological existence, however, is emotion, or feeling. That we sometimes leave behind. It participates in reality as much as rationality does. I’m reminded of this every time I hear someone in the business world refer to “soft” skills. What mere humans bring to this rationalistic business of making money. We’re just the squishy stuff that CEOs can’t live without because wealth mean nothing if you can’t compare it to someone else’s. Humility? I agree, Dr. Gleiser, we must maintain a sense of wonder. For those of you who say we’re just a number waiting to be quantified, I would humbly ask for 42, if it’s not already taken.

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