Tag Archives: science and religion

Human Omniscience

This might take some thought, but please bear with me. I’ve been reading about how some scientists are eager to promote rationality only as the true understanding of the universe. The flaws in this logic are immense. The greatest gaff here is assuming that evolved biological creatures with only five senses have come to comprehend the vastness of a universe in which we matter very, very, very, (and some scientific notation may be helpful here) very little. And we assume that’s all there is to know. Consider that when you want to spot the Pleiades in the nighttime sky, the best way to do it is not to look directly at the constellation. Our rods, which are far more sensitive than our cones, are not concentrated in the center of our field of vision. That means, in some circumstances, you see something better by looking slightly away from it. Don’t take my word for it, test it yourself on a clear night.

We also know that some animals have senses that we don’t. When’s the last time you picked up the earth’s magnetic field? We know it’s there and we know that some animals sense it. We don’t. Or consider the ant. If ants make you itchy, any hive mind will do. There are creatures right here on earth that think collectively, not as individuals. As humans we’ve evolved to think that our limited experience tells us everything there possibly is to know about truth. We don’t know how living under water influences perceptions because we can’t do it. No, we’re a race of surface dwellers. (There’s a metaphor there for those of you who believe in such things.) We’ve learned some basic laws of physics and suddenly we preside over the courtroom of the universe since our evolved logic is the only and the best the cosmos has to offer.

Evolution, however, also made us religious. If logic is at all what it seems we have to admit that study after study has shown the benefits of religious belief to the beleaguered human psyche. If we try to measure it empirically it crumbles in our fingers. Only logic would tell us simply to ignore it then. I’m no enemy of reason. It’s the best way we have of getting along in this world. I love science and support its evidence-based health. It’s just that as I’m standing here in the dark wondering where the seven sisters are, I sometimes have to trust my rods instead of focusing on what I can see plainly with my everyday sight. Logic tells me there are other things outside my sensory range as well.

Photo credit: NASA


It’s pretty difficult to summarize the feelings when watching your own child graduate from college. Of course, she’s not a child any more, but that’s always the way you’ll think of her. Binghamton University, a “public ivy,” is a competitive school to attend. Hard to get in, and hard to get out. And you know that there were serious struggles to get to this point. Courses conceptually impossible for a humanities ex-professor to understand marked the trail to this point. The academic robes, the positive energy, and the overall sense of accomplishment make this one of those joyous occasions that mark the transition from being the instructed to becoming the instructors. It’s a time unlike any other.

Most of my collegiate thoughts, despite my three degrees in religious studies, have focused on science and engineering. It’s not that the basis of truth has shifted, but the practicalities of “finding a job” have to take precedence these days. The STEM universe may be the only real one, according to those smart enough to know such things. It’s difficult not to feel that studying religion was chasing a chimera, if not a little deluded. Tomorrow, though, the college of arts and sciences will send forth even more graduates into a world where employment itself may be a reverie. Still, I can’t help but think these engineers from the Watson School are just a little brighter than their more humanities-inclined classmates. Parenting is its own kind of bias.

Commencement is a singular moment. Parents sitting in the crowd want to attract their child’s attention for just a moment. Each one down there is a star. You want to be seen by them, recognized if only for a fleeting smile or subtle wave. They’ve accomplished something and everyone is here to cheer them on. Your meaning is tied up in being associated with that person that you’ve coached through so many aspects of life, and you hope you’ve done it well. They’re ready to leave academia behind and experience a bit of the wider world. It’s a cycle as old as this planet’s first molten rotations as it revolved around a distant star. And as those walking across the stage are growing in magnitude, those of us cheering them on try to recollect what it was like to have so much loving goodwill focused on us. It’s difficult to summarize these feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d call them religious.

See Around Us

There aren’t too many people that I consider personal heroes. Those that I do have earned the sobriquet in odd ways, I suppose. That makes them no less deserving. Rachel Carson became a hero because of The Sea Around Us. Published over a decade before I was born, it was a book that I treasured as a teen—or even as a tween, had the word existed then. I was no literary critic, but her style and lyrical writing drew me in and my own love of the ocean I’d never seen was kept alive through her words. Mark Hamilton Lytle, I think, shares my evaluation of Carson as a hero. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement brought out much of what I admired, and still admire, about her. A woman in a “man’s world,” she became a scientist with a gift for literary finesse. She struggled, she believed, and she died far too young.

Lytle’s book builds up to the publication of Silent Spring, which appeared just two years before Carson’s untimely death. I picked up Silent Spring as a tween as well, but only read it within the last few years. I knew this book had nearly singlehandedly launched the environmental movement, but as the shame of modern life constantly reminds me, I’d been too busy to read it. Born the year it was published, and not terribly far from where Carson herself was born, I had an affinity with the book that strangely kept me from it. It isn’t easy to read, even today. Especially today. With a government ignorantly rolling away all the environmental safeguards that six decades of careful thought have put into place, we need Carson now as much as we did in the 1960s. Her modern critics, as might be expected, tend to be men.

Carson showed that a woman can change the world. Those who disparage her stunning work claim that her following is a religion, not science. Carson was a rare scientist who saw that everything is interconnected. There may be some mysticism to this, but for those willing to admit it, we feel it to be true. On the eve of environmental degradation that will, in a perverse kind of justice, possibly wipe us out, we need to return to the fine words and clear thinking of one woman who took on industrial giants to give a voice to the people. We do have a right to determine what happens to our planet. Lytle makes the point that Carson was like a prophet. For me the comparative preposition can be removed altogether.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

Occam’s Beard

Skeptics can be so much fun. We really do need them, otherwise we’d likely still be living with notions of medical science being attributed to four humors, none of which were that funny. Still, sometimes it gets tiresome to read endless references that take Occam out of context. You see, one of the foundations, if not the very keystone, of modern scientific method is that of parsimony, aka Occam’s razor. The idea is simplicity itself. If there are multiple possible explanations for a phenomenon, then the simplest is most likely correct. But only if it supports your biases. The reason I raise this question is the materialistic dismissal of “consciousness” as merely a by-product of having a brain. The reasoning goes like this—nothing exists that can’t be measured by science. Since that which isn’t material can’t be measured, the most parsimonious explanation is that it doesn’t exist. QED.

This way of looking at the world has become so common that those of us who question it are given a condescending smile and a paternalistic pat on the head. But my thinking about this goes back to Occam himself. William of Occam (or Ockham) was a late medieval churchman and thinker. As a scholar he possessed a sharp mind. As a friar he also possessed a soul. There was no disconnect in those days. His observations of the natural world led him to the reasonable conclusion that if a simpler solution sufficed, a more complicated one need not be posited. So far, so good. This is not, however, to suggest that more complex things may not be going on. Quantum physics, for example, suggests that things aren’t quite so easy to explain. And what about poor Occam’s soul? This very component that made William William has been dismissed as mere illusion. Did it therefore not exist?

Is it more parsimonious to suggest that “mind” (or soul, or consciousness, whichever you prefer) is mere illusion, electro-chemical signals flitting between highly specialized cells just happen to give off a fiction of consciousness, or would the simpler answer be, as Occam himself believed, we have souls? We have no way to measure such things, but to claim they don’t exist is to rob a great thinker of his very mind. Any of us who experience consciousness know that it’s no illusion. We feel the pains and joys of this same body day after day and, if we’re honest, we believe that we’ll continue even after this fleshy substrate wears out. There’s a profound logic here. Science doesn’t know how mind affects matter—how I can decide to type and my fingers move. The most parsimonious answer, they claim, is that it only seems to be so. A far more honest answer would be that mind is real. And I’m sure Occam himself would agree, even if he preferred to call it a soul.

Frankly Frankenstein

As a novel, like its monster, Frankenstein trespasses all kinds of boundaries. Is it science fiction or horror? Is it Gothic or presciently modern? Is it feminist or conventional? One thing about it is certain: it has been immensely influential. Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey have created for the world a truly wondrous treatment of this meme. Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives is perhaps the most engaging monster book I’ve ever read (and there have been many). One of the main reasons for this is that Friedman and Kavey are keenly aware that binaries don’t necessarily exclude their opposites. Frankenstein is about both science and religion, and it treats both profoundly. Considering that Mary Shelley was only 21 when the novel was published bespeaks a rare genius in blurring boundaries and making those on each side think.

Monstrous Progeny considers multiple issues associated with Frankenstein. Should science be approached alone, or should peer review be involved at every stage? Is religion eschewed by this woman so strongly influenced by atheism, or is it the very crux of the matter? And what about the incredible and continuing afterlife of Shelley’s story? Friedman and Kavey survey not only the novel but several movies associated with, or based on ideas from, the book. Modern science, if we’re to be honest, also owes much to the fictional musings of a 19-year-old girl on a dark and stormy night. The tale of the tale is nearly as fantastic as its progeny. Challenged to write a ghost story, Shelley produced an undying Zeitgeist feature instead. Monstrous Progeny delves deeply into this unexpectedly profound idea, showing how it grips the heart of many contemporary nightmares.

Genres can be deceiving. Shelley wrote her tale as a “ghost story.” It received literary acclaim, becoming one of the best selling books in England in the nineteenth century. Only when Universal found success with Dracula in 1931 and followed it up with Frankenstein the same year did film critics want something to call movies like this. The term “horror film” was invented. There is certainly horror in Frankenstein, but there’s much more to it than that. The relationship between religion and science, and the very real ethical issue of making something because we can, are never far from the reader’s mind. Giving life to the creature only underscores the conflicts and contradictions of life in a world where to be gods risks destroying any possibility of heaven. Monstrous Progeny is a thought-provoking book that will, in its own way, brings our present fears to life.

Science Marches On

A few thoughts about the March for Science in Manhattan over the weekend seem to be in order. To get to the rally in time, from our little corner of New Jersey, we found ourselves on an early train. We arrived at 62nd Street and Central Park West to discover the march was beginning just outside of one of Trump’s unimpressive towers. The area for marchers was clearly marked off by barricades, but a woman walking her dogs, a resident of Trump’s tower, wandered in among the crowd. Like most Trump followers, she seemed clueless that there was an obvious way around the obstacles and had to be helped by the police. Seems to be a theme with 45—police are everywhere watching his assets. Meanwhile the hotel doormen from next door were asking for “Resist” paraphernalia and reminiscing about their shock when the boy next door received the nomination. The mood was jovial despite the spitting rain.

The speeches at the rally were mostly given by children ten and younger. The future teaching the past. As might be expected, the signs were clever, and some took considerable thought to figure out. A few, it seems, felt religion was to blame. Well, they’re probably right about that. One gets the sense that science and religion are like cats and dogs, and nobody has to guess which one’s identified with the cats. Still, the majority of the signs pointed out the benefits of science. Even scholars of religion use the scientific method, believe it or not. Like science, religion (as revealed by science) may be good for people. Who brings religion to a science rally?

I’ve always been a fan of science. Throughout school I learned a lot and did well in physics and chemistry, biology not so much (dissection was never my thing). I still read science and incorporate it into my thinking. Balance, however, suggests perhaps religion also be treated as not evil in and of itself. After all, it is evolved behavior. As the march progressed down Broadway, we passed a church that had a prominent banner reading “Prayer really does work,” or something along those lines. I’d seen enough clever signs already that morning to notice this contrarian voice. Then I wondered, why can’t science and religion seem to get along? Both can (but need not) make exclusive truth claims. What’s wrong with admitting that we just don’t know? Belief is involved in either case. No doubt science is important. I’ve always supported its study and always will. Is it, however, too much to believe that maybe religion can also enlighten, if understood for what it is—a human way of coping with an uncertain world? As science marches on, hopefully it will help us comprehend even the unmeasurable.