Tag Archives: science and religion

God’s Meteorologist

weatherexperiment“To understand the weather is somehow to glimpse the divine.“ I honestly don’t remember writing those words. A friend of my drew them out in a quote last year (perhaps the only time my book has every had such an honor) and they resonate with what a much better known writer has said. The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future was a book I bought upon first sight. Peter Moore’s story, like the science of the atmosphere, is only a small part of the whole. I glanced through the index for Increase Lapham while still in the bookstore, but despite his absence bought the tome anyway. I’m glad I did. Throughout this account of how meteorology developed in the nineteenth century religion and science are continually at play. As Moore points out, when faced with a violent storm, before any means of grasping the sheer enormity of the atmosphere existed, the only reasonable explanation was God. And it wasn’t just the clergy who believed this. Those we now recognize as scientists thought so too.

There are several key players in the drama of how we’ve come to our current understanding of the weather, but one that surprised me most was Robert FitzRoy. Everyone knows that FitzRoy was captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin’s voyage that revolutionized science for ever. Some are even aware that FitzRoy, especially after his marriage, because a staunch evangelical Christian, parting ways with Darwin so far as to wave a Bible over his head at a public debate on evolution. I, for one, had no idea that FitzRoy almost singlehandedly invented the weather forecast. And that he did so as a government employee and doing so brought the ridicule of the scientific establishment because predicting was considered the purview of unscientific minds. It was as if the world I recognize had been whirled 180 degrees around by some unseen storm.

Any book on the weather, as I’ve learned, has to include a discussion of global warming. Climate change is real, and it is something we’ve done to our own planet. In a day when statistics can be produced showing that many scientific results are funded by companies with vested interests in the outcome of the experiments—even those at top universities—and we can see just how complex this web of financially motivated truth has become. Science is not pure rationality. It never has been, and it never can be as long as humans are the ones undertaking it. And we are beginning—just beginning—to see that there are some places where the wind blows freely through although those in white coats have assured us the room is sealed. This is a fascinating read and any book that makes me think I had the start of something profound to say is one I’ll buy on impulse any day.

The Whole Truth

In a thoughtful piece on NPR, Adam Frank discusses “Are Scientific Truths Better Than Other Truths?(.)” He describes a Ivy League conference called to discuss this point, and although I get about as much attention as adults give Barney, I’ve been blogging about this topic for years now. If only I had an institution. Or an ivy leaf. But never mind that. The topic’s the thing, and indeed it is long overdue. Science works (at least most of the time) and so we don’t require any convincing on that point. The very title of the article, however, raises the specter of the question: are scientific truths better? There’s a lot of unpacking to do and I haven’t even left home yet. First of all, “truths.” Science provides the best explanation of phenomena that we have, given the data at the moment. Since science is, by definition, falsifiable, it doesn’t provide truths. As much as scientists must begrudgingly admit it, truths are spun out by philosophers and—God help us!—theologians. The scientists who want to give us truths should probably take philosophy 101.


Then there’s that surprisingly difficult adverb “better.” Good, better, best. These are value words. Science cannot assess value. Gold is “worth” more than the lint in my pockets because humans have agreed that it is. Inherently, both substances are made of the same thing: atoms. The lint in my pocket may have more exotic elements than pure gold, but nobody’s going to pay anything for it. Value, as has been endlessly demonstrated, is in the purview of religion, ethics, and philosophy. If you have to you can add the dismal science to the mix, but even that is just a social science. No physicist can tell you if this meal is better than that. It’s a matter of perspective. If I value my beans enough, not even your pâté will tempt me.

I want to stick with this latter word “better” just a little longer. Perhaps because as an underemployed thinker I’m especially sensitive to the subject. In what sense is science “better” than humanities? Show me a scientist who’s never listened to music and I’ll show you a sad individual. When we come home from the lab we still want the creature comforts that people have devised whether through science, culture, or even religion. If you value that weekend, be sure to thank a monotheist. Science tells us no day of the week is any different than any other. In my experience there’s a world of difference between Saturday and Monday. For this inveterate and unrepentant humanities student, that’s the truth.

The Science of Being Human

Not so long ago, when I was still a professor, a colleague told me he had no interest in science. We studied religion, he reasoned, and science had little to add. I was in the midst of a research project at the time. That project was exploring how what we know of evolution (or knew at the time) might inform our understanding of ancient texts. Of course, I was working in relative isolation, noting in my cover letters to universities that my research would benefit from an institution with a cooperative and collegial atmosphere between the sciences and humanities. If you’ve read this blog before, you know how that ended. No cooperative schools ever thought such research was worth sponsoring. After all, there are younger, less expensive specialists out there examining ancient religions in microscopic detail. The rest of the world, of course, wonders why.

This divide, as so eloquently delineated by Marcelo Gleiser in a piece on NPR, is starting to grow narrower. Science is taking us, in many fields, very close to the humanities. And we can’t make sense of some of it without admitting our human limitations. This is what I so admire about Gleiser’s writing—he is a scientist who understands that arrogance has no place in intellectual inquiry. Biology, as I long ago expected, holds one of the keys of this dilemma. Our brains evolved for a specific purpose—to help us survive in a predatory world. They did not evolve into processing systems to comprehend, as one sage put it, life, the universe, and everything. No one brain can hold all that knowledge. Like it or not, that brain in human. And humans need humanities.

Some scholars among the humanities like to claim that science has reached too far. The problem is, any scholar who is a true scholar is also a scientist. We use scientific methods to understand our admittedly speculative, or at least subjective, subject matter. Science isn’t the enemy here. Arrogance is. As Gleiser has stated in other venues, we have to approach the world with humility. We know so very little. Part of that world is that beyond human reach, and part of that world is what humans have done. They’re both part of the larger picture. But humans live on a small planet that we now know is only one of many, many more throughout the visible universe. And we know the visible universe is only part of the story. But we can’t be honest if we forget that the minds trying to understand all this are, no matter how evolved, only human.


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.