Transcending the Silly: Beyond the Science v. Religion Debate, Part IV

By Adam Frank | February 4, 2008 12:13 pm

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

It was all I could do to keep from hurling my jumbo buttered popcorn at the screen. A friend had taken me to see the new age hit “What the Bleep do We Know,” and a moment comes when one of the interviewees says, “Every morning I get up and change the quantum fields around me.” That was when the impulse to scream or laugh or throw the popcorn hit me. In the end, I just had to shake my head: It was just too silly.

In yesterday’s post, I identified what I called “The Sullen” as a dominant mode of talking about science and religion. The Sullen are the religious fundamentalists who angrily reject those scientific findings (evolutionary biology, physical cosmology, etc.) that conflict with their interpretation of scripture. Today, I will briefly touch on the other well-traveled road in public discourse on science and religion, which, for alliterative reasons, I call “The Silly.”

In the 1980s, two books, The Tao of Physics and The Dancing Wu Li Masters, permanently changed the popular conception of science and spirituality. These books sparked widespread interest in the confluence of science with eastern religious worldviews (Yogic and Buddhism). Quantum mechanics, the physics of subatomic phenomena, took center stage. Now the terms like “quantum healing” and the “observer phenomenon” have entered the lexicon of popular consciousness.

The influence of this perspective can be seen in any catalogue from an adult learning center where classes linking quantum physics with everything from past-life regression to crystal energy channeling can be found. It is remarkable how widely buzzwords from “quantum spirituality” have diffused. I once had the distinctly unreal experience of being told that I should purchase a “magnetic bed” (a bed with magnets glued to the frame) because quantum physics proved it would increase my well being.

Attempts to link Buddhism, Yoga or generic new age philosophies with scientific paradigms differ from the angry inward focus of fundamentalists. The Sullen reject a dominant paradigm (evolution) because it is at odds with their religious perspective. The Silly embrace a dominant paradigm (quantum mechanics) as confirmation of a cherished spiritual worldview. The problem, however, is that in spite of cheerful aspirations to a brighter day where “we are all connected,” linking quantum physics with a specific religious doctrine is also fundamentally flawed. Writers like the infuriating Deepak Chopra use quantum mechanics to prop up ideas that have no connection to it.

These attempts to force quantum physics into the strictures of a great spiritual tradition such as Buddhism or, more recently, imagined new age philosophies miss the essential point that in science, the world cannot be made to walk along a preconceived ideology. (My understanding is that the same could be said about those who are authentic in what they consider their spiritual practice.)

There may be much of interest in Eastern perspectives, if only because of their millennia of focus on a very different set of questions than our Western tradition. This, however, is a different question than the positive claims of quantum spirituality. Fundamentally, the Sullen and the Silly make the same mistake—they only care about the results. They focus on what is published in journals and ask, “Does this fit with what I expect of the world?” There are many interpretations of quantum mechanics, and the Silly pick the one that fits their ideals best.

Ultimately, a different perspective on science and religion will have to give up the fascination with results, and ask deeper questions about where science and religion originate in our long, long cultural history and, more importantly, the human experience.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (26)

  1. Jumblepudding

    The thing that draws new-agers to quantum theory is the ambiguity- In their minds, because nobody understands it except Stephen Hawking, and he has better things to do than refute them, they can impose their own understanding, and their own feelgood nonsense onto quantum terms, and sound multi-disciplinary and wholistic in their thinking. Not only is Deepak Chopra a guru, he can convince his followers he has now morphed into a cosmologist and a physicist due to the depth of his “transcendent wisdom”

  2. Jason Heldenbrand

    Given a choice however, I’ll take the Silly over the Sullen. At least the Silly do not attempt to stop scientific teaching or progress, even if their view of it is pretty warped. I suppose their views, as irritating as they might be, are no worse than those presented by Carl Jung.

    Besides, the psychological effect of belief is likely to make people at least -feel- better, though for the wrong reason. The placebo effect doesn’t work if you tell them a placebo. So if people want to put magnets on their beds, more (quantum) power to them. As long as their beliefs don’t attempt to control doctrine in the politics, cause harm to others, or influence the development of children, I’ve got no problem with the Silly.

  3. dan

    I dont normally like to walk on toes, but… agonsticism is still ideology. agnostics would have you believe that their belief system is the only ‘pure’ way to be. They by difinition, are contradicting themselves. Thats the funny thing about beliefs; even if you claim not have any, you still have to define your position, which brings one into being.

  4. Very good article.

    I’ve got to put Dawkins and his like in the category of “The Silly” too, along with those who think that science is some sort of religion, or will become one.

    Don’t get me wrong, I get a big kick out of hearing the religious bigots getting some of their own medicine. But in the end his approach is just stilly. Who was ever convinced because someone called them a fool? Extremism breeds extremism. Hence Dawkins and the “New Atheists”. More extremism breeds even more.

    Yelling, insults and name-calling only serve to harden peoples resolve by appealing to their irrational side. And resorting to those tactics in the name of logic and rationality is just silly in the extreme.

    Before you attack me for something I did not say, you can read a post I made in 2007 that pretty well surmises my religious point of view. Scroll down to “donotspamjim”.

    http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/07/professors-in-c.html

  5. james.m.k

    Dan,
    Actually, agnostics say they aren’t convinced one way or the other.

    A true agnostic won’t tell you that you’re wrong. Just that you can’t prove you’re right.

  6. Kurt

    He probably meant Atheism.

    Personally I feel that there *may* be some connection between these kinds of things. Spirituality and Science. But nobody can prove it, so I’m not going to base my life around some theory. It’s interesting to think about, but following the science and basing your beliefs on facts, not assumptions, is also important.

    Something like that.

  7. James, an agnostic actually doesn’t even have to say that a certain question is unprovable (unless we’re going to be really strict with the term “prove”, like a physicist should be!).

    It’s perfectly possible for an agnostic to not have an “ideology”. Dan, your blanket statement that agnostics want you to think that theirs is the only “pure” belief is, as far as I can tell from talking to agnostics (like myself), just not true.

  8. Also, Dan, I have no idea what this “you can’t not have a belief” thing has to do with this post, but hey, good on you for turning a whole thread of comments in a different direction :)

  9. I think that death of spirituality based on sound and hard scientific facts are greatly exaggerated. First argument is that materialists are much too eager to claim victory while so much remains unknown. At that level, I would call that sullen arrogance.

    For instance, print those 38 pages found on http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/documents/Hameroff_received-1-05-07.pdf (first chapter of a forthcoming [?] book from Stuart Hameroff).

    …and read carefully.

    Without knowing the future, I prefer being connected with the Silly Ones…

  10. Mike Gottschalk

    Adam, after reading your essay I’ve come to realize finally, what it is about new age spirituality that bothers me and it has to do with the human phenomenon of “symbol dynamics”. (I’m using this term both tongue in cheek and metaphorically. After all, science co-opted the word symbol for math signs.)

    Symbols and signs share in the the idea that their is nothing intrinsic to themselves to indicate a particular meaning; rather their meaning arises from a group’s consent. One big difference in this case however, is that while a stop sign can be changed by a vote, the american flag won’t be changed into another flag without a revolution. ( You might ask yourself what it would take to change a mathematical symbol….)

    A symbol is something concrete that can somehow act as a doorway to a dimension that feels larger than our immediate selves, and participating in this ‘larger dimension’ often deepens our experience and understanding of the true and real. A symbol’s power depends on both our ability to understand the qualities of its nature as well as the qualities of an experience found in this other dimension. I’m not using the word dimension in terms of an integer here, but I am using it as a metaphor to communicate as accurately as I can.

    When I watch new age spirituality use quantum mechanics, I don’t see that they’re being used symbolically or even metaphorically- quantum mechanics are being used technologically. And seeing this led me to realize that new age culture as a whole, treats spirituality as technology. I’ll dare to express this somewhat mathematically as: spiritual technology = scientific technology.

    The dimension that we experience through symbol, collapses when we try approach it through technological means; no one has ever been able to bottle beauty. Spirituality I think is bound to the ‘laws’ of, dare I say it- symbolic dynamics.

  11. Dear Frank,

    Frankly speaking, neither you know what is transcending nor you you have understood the nature of human body and mind. You may be knowing that all this sientific tempers have come only few hundred years back, where as this transcending phenomenon was there much before that, what I meant to say that probably non of western civilizations have even taken birth. Wtravellers from these areas started commimg to Asia or India only they came to know about the other civilisations.

    Most of the scientific theories are all based on certain assumptions of mathematics. But all the works of transcending are all based on human body and mind, which are more beneficial than the science it self for making the human body metabolism to higher levels.

    I am very sorry to state that what you are viewing only the physical are chemical nature of few materials or some systems only. There is driving force behind all these, which is actually trying to unite that force and also experiencing that is probably transcending, those people who are only after materialistic aspect may not be able to even observe that, what is happening inside the body.

    I am also sure that what we have learnt about the human body or sciences oe ineffective for realising are understanding what is that transcending power.

  12. james.m.k

    I tried to post this a couple of times on the 4th, with no love. So here my comment is again.
    ==
    Very good article.

    I’ve got to put Dawkins and his like in the category of “The Silly” too, along with those who think that science is some sort of religion, or will become one.

    Don’t get me wrong, I get a big kick out of hearing the religious bigots getting some of their own medicine. But in the end his approach is just stilly. Who was ever convinced because someone called them a fool? Extremism breeds extremism. Hence Dawkins and the “New Atheists”. More extremism breeds even more.

    Yelling, insults and name-calling only serve to harden peoples resolve by appealing to their irrational side. And resorting to those tactics in the name of logic and rationality is just silly in the extreme.

    Before you attack me for something I did not say, you can read a post I made in 2007 that pretty well surmises my religious point of view. Scroll down to “donotspamjim”.

    http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/07/professors-in-c.html

  13. jamesmk

    I may have to take back my comment about Dawkins, he seems to have chilled out a great deal.

    Here’s a great article by him:

    http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article5707143.ece?

  14. Mike Gottschalk

    Thanks for the heads-up jamesmk, I enjoyed the article.

  15. Baxl89 dulemhrvqdah, [url=http://izruksuitkdz.com/]izruksuitkdz[/url], [link=http://dsbrcylssuzf.com/]dsbrcylssuzf[/link], http://feeqqycrnonh.com/

  16. web resulted cap worldwide android [url=http://www.universityofcalifornia.edu]degree variability[/url] http://aem.asm.org

  17. this is the test message
    please ignore this =)
    ————
    12358294867184757274

  18. Hi! PjXjRD http://srizdz.com/ eOxheipq [url=http://kgtlmy.com/]eOxheipq[/url]

  19. we China Wholesale Wholesale NHL Jerseys China cheap from china,Wholesale NHL Jerseys ChinaWholesale NHL Jerseys China,NHL Jerseys China,Cheap NHL Jerseys from china, Wholesale Security Camera,Wholesale NBA Jerseys,canadiens jersey,nhl apparel,buy nhl jerseys online;jerseys for sale.buy nhl jerseys online discount ,cheap nfl jerseys,nfl Cheap Football Jerseys ,nfl jerseys shop,discount nfl jerseys,nfl jerseys from china,nfl jerseys for sale,china nfl jerseys,nfl jerseys for kids,replica nfl jerseys,authentic Wholesale ,nfl jerseys for cheap; from china. more large order nhl jerseys for cheap. replica nhl jerseys for sale. authentic nfl China Wholesalers Wholesale Baby MonitorsWholesale Spy Cameras Wholesale Spy Camera.

  20. In fact, some people kill for a the designers or those who already the rounds of thrift shops. Undoubtedly much value is in an authentic Gucci Bags, or 15 years or 15 minutes old.Gucci Louis VuittonGucci Shoes and Louis Vuitton Shoes started with a small luggage and saddlery company in Florence, where they sell leather that are produced exclusively by artisans of Florence. The entitlement to seek international supportCustomer opens Discount Gucci Handbags Louis Vuitton Handbags i another company, this time in Via Condotti in Rome. Although very popular with Consumers, it was not until 1947 that the first Gucci UK and Louis Vuitton UK reached icon the state with the bag until you have a bamboo handle. The bag was introduced by Gucci Bags Discount, was a great success with the icon of the Gucci Shoulder Bag and Louis Vuitton BagBelt lines deriv>ed from the circle. The symbol LV of the tape strips is so special Louis Vuitton Outlet and so identified with Gucci products, whetherBags or clothing that has been done in a Brand .Another symbol of Gucci Purses and Louis Wallet was introduced some years after LV UK Moccasin handbag with metal spikes.Gucci Handbags Sale.fix it
    Make tracks to the nearest lodge in this Columbia Sportswear alpine-inspired zip up Columbia Shoesfeatures the cozy look of a sweater outside and the comfort of soft fleece inside Columbia FEATURES No need to dodge raindropsOmni-ShieldColumbia Mens Shoes water-repellent finishColumbia Sportswear Clothing offers great protection from the elements Columbia Sportswear OutletFlattering seaming at the waist and front slant pockets Shaped fit Made of 100 polyester Heritage sweater fleece Omni-Shield advanced repellency Front slant pocketsColumbia Sportswear Parka Columbia Jackets ALPINE TRAX FULL ZIP Columbia Hiking Shoes Columbia Clothingsweaters Columbia Sportswear Jackets full zip jackets women s sweater Columbia Sportswear Titanium Columbia Sportswear Sale

    ed hardy

    Wedding Dresses

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »