Tag Archives: science and religion

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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Paraleipomenon

EarnestI suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.

It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.

It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?

The Found World

LostWorldChallenges will make you do funny things. One enjoyable dare has been Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge. With a modest twelve books in twelve months goal, the specific target is to read the types of books laid out. Into one of those categories, for me, fell Michael Crichton’s The Lost World. It’s sad that I feel I need so many disclaimers—I never really outgrew my love of dinosaurs—such escapist literature is indeed a guilty pleasure. Crichton could write a quick read, not bothering to pause for literary hindrances, and this novel fits the bill. It always surprises me when at the end of a traumatic story where friends die (this time ripped apart by reptilian carnivores) that the protagonists escape and never mention the dead. They joke, explain holes in the story, and generally look forward to a better, raptor-free future. There is, however, some food for thought here, among the lucre-grubbing sequel to Jurassic Park.

The first religious element that caught my attention was resurrection. Ian Malcolm rather convincingly died in Jurassic Park (and even an unconvincing death works for most people). In The Lost World he’s suddenly back again, with a barely disguised deus ex machina, and is as diffident as ever. The other former protagonists know better than to return to an island full of dinosaurs. Resurrection is a time-honored literary trope. So much so that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that death is in any way permanent. Well, come to think about it, the dinosaurs too are resurrected. Do reptiles have souls? Crichton’s dinosaurs seem to.

Then, just over halfway through the story, I was stunned. The chapter, or section, called “Gambler’s Ruin” explains how science and religion (or the humanities in general) are really the same. I couldn’t believe that a bestselling novel actually took the point of view that scientific objectivity is just as fraught as post-modern literary theory. There is no way to observe without influencing. When a conscious presence enters the equation, the facts have to counterbalance in return. Many, of course, would disagree in principle. Still, this unexpected bit of profundity stopped me in mid-chomp. Materialism, beguiling as it may be, doesn’t explain Heisenberg or Schrödinger. It takes a resurrected mathematician to do it. No wonder chaos abounds in this world where dinosaurs still rule the earth.

Story of God

Synchronicities come at kinds of synchronaddresses. After I had written a recent post on human sacrifice, I watched the first episode of Morgan Freeman’s The Story of God. My wife actually figured out how to get it without the miracle of the triple play, and we watched the initial installment on death. I’ve stated repeatedly on this blog, as I used to in my lectures, that death is a universal concern of religion. I wasn’t really expecting to learn anything new from the show, but it is a good idea to keep up with what hoi polloi are being told about the field in which I’m supposed to be a specialist. In any case, The Story of God is very much like Through the Wormhole, only from the other side. Science and religion. Religion and science. Like chocolate and peanut butter, two great tastes that taste great together. Really, I mean that.

So after telling us that the Egyptians may have invented the afterlife (although it’s clear they didn’t), the show takes us through other religious expressions: Christian, Hindu, Aztec. The Aztec segment brought up human sacrifice again, in its particularly grisly expression, as a means of thinking about what happens after death. In the light of the article I’d read (see last Sunday’s post) I couldn’t help but think how this was an ideal form of social control. There’s no doubt who’s in power when you’re looking up at your still beating heart, strangely cooled. As I’m pondering that heart, I’m thinking it wasn’t the Egyptians who first had this idea at all.

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Neanderthals, it appears, may have buried their dead. Even if they didn’t other ancient, pre-historic people did. And with grave-goods which, if you think about it, are rather superfluous without any afterlife in which to use them. It stands to reason, even before reason, that as soon as people began to recognize death, they had to be wondering what happened next. It is a bit simplistic to suggest that religion began because of the fear of death. It is also equally simplistic to suggest that death had nothing to do with the beginnings of what we call religion. People have died as long as there have been people. And survivors have carried on after the passing of others. Maybe we are all grown up now, but it seems that we aren’t fully human unless we give some sort of thought to what comes next. Even if the answer is “nothing,” it’s some kind of religious statement, whether intentional or not.