“Whosoever can not do this, whosoever knows no such moments in his experience, is requested to read no further.”
You can find these lines describing “religious experience” in Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. This slim volume is part of the cannon of academic religious studies programs across the world. The book was published in 1917, and Otto, a liberal German theologian, used it as an attempt to direct discussion about religion away from theoretical gymnastics and focus instead on experience. With typical German precision, he uses a razor-thin scalpel of analysis and metaphor to understand the character of these experiences. In one potent example, he invokes being overwhelmed by great music as a cousin of “religious experience,” be it a Bach etude or Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” (hey, it works for me).
Otto wants to make clear that awe is not simply appreciation, but something much deeper and elemental. Religious experience is, in his words, “awe-ful.” It is exactly at that point that we can step away from Otto’s ultimate concern with the metaphysics of deity (not my thing) and find a powerful and potent path to think about science and human spiritual endeavor.
Time and again, when people encounter the universe revealed through the power of science, they will use the term “awe” to describe their experience. It’s a common reaction to Hubble images of dying stars, electron microscopy of viral nano-worlds, or even enveloping descriptions of evolution’s elegance in the development of new species. I know people have this reaction because they tell me about it. After giving numerous talks on science, I can count the people who come up afterward and describe their reactions with the word “awe.” Something, for them, has happened.
Awe can mean overpowering or overflowing. That makes sense to me in this context. Sometimes it will be defined as “dread.” That seems too negative for my tastes, but from these same talks some people tell me that the grand scales revealed by astrophysics make them feel uncomfortable and displaced. So perhaps, for them, dread was a part of the experience, too. Definitions aside, the point here is simple—you know it when you feel it. And there lies the crux of the biscuit.
And now for something completely different…
In my day job, I spend a lot of time thinking about how stars form. The assembly of stars (and planets) constitutes one of the great frontiers of modern astronomy. With the discovery of hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, the co-joined questions of how solar systems form and evolve has taken on a new urgency. Life will form on planets and planets will form around stars. But where, and how, do stars form? That is a question you can now explore directly in the finest and oldest tradition in science—by playing around.
From a very unusual collaboration between DISCOVER, the University of Rochester, the National Science Foundation, and my good friends at Second Avenue Software, we are happy to bring you “Star Formation: The Game.”
Over the last three decades, astronomers have worked hard to develop an accurate picture of single star formation as the gravitational collapse of large interstellar clouds. This was a huge achievement, but it was only the first step. With better telescopes operating at longer cloud-penetrating wavelengths, it became clear that star formation was a family affair. Worse still, the families can be pretty dysfunctional. That is what “Star Formation: The Game” is all about.
Bernard d’Espagnat, the French physicist and philosopher, has won the controversial Templeton Award from the even more controversial Templeton Foundation. What is not controversial is the contribution d’Espagnat has made to the understanding of fundamental issues in quantum interpretations.
I first encountered his work as an undergraduate after I came out of Intro to Quantum Mechanics wondering who had just mugged my sense of reality. I went straight to the physics library to wrap my head around what I was learning, and ran into his books.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, quantum physics is the theory of the atomic realm. It is extraordinary in its predictive capacity, and exasperating in its inability to tell us what, exactly, we are studying. When asked directly about quantum mechanical descriptions of, say, the electron, my professor said: “The electron is that to which we ascribe the properties of the electron.” That nicely summarizes where quantum leaves us in terms of thinking about what is really out there. The world is full of interpretations of the math, but no one knows which view of reality is correct.
So the Bloggingheads.tv dialog between Eliezer Yudkowsky and myself is now online. I haven’t watched it (too weird) but I am told it was a steel cage death match of discussion, an octagon of oratory, and a smack-down of debate.
Ok, ok—it was none of those things. Still, it was great fun, and I really enjoyed participating, and learned a great deal. It’s possible that we might do it again. There were so many topics left on the table.
One point we raised that I think could use more discussion is the persistent metaphor of the Map and Terrain. It came it up during our dialog, and Eliezer has made use of the image in some of his writings. Remarkably, and for entirely different reasons, I employed the same image in my book. Not surprisingly, we have very different ideas of what composes the Map, the Terrain, and their proper relationship. The idea we share is that the terrain is reality—what is out there. What we don’t share are assumptions about what we can assume about that reality, what kind of access we have to it, and what one should include in it.
My first reason for thinking about the map and the terrain with a more expanded sensibility is the activity of science itself. The coolest thing about science is that, in its essence, it’s an open exploration—an honest appraisal of what we know and what we do not know. If you have already assumed the terrain has a certain form, then there’s a good chance you will blind yourself to what you did not expect. I am suspicious of any attempt to box up the fruit of scientific exploration with preconceived ideas of reductionism or anything else. Nature is invariably more creative than we are.
“Science is not a philosophy; it’s an attitude.”
So why, if I am trying to work out a new approach to science and human spiritual endeavor, would I spend 600 words in my last post jumping up and down about Texas, their school board, and creationists? That was the question some people had for me, so I think it’s worth reflecting for a minute on what’s at stake in all this.
I have argued that the traditional debate in science and religion takes three forms: the Sullen (creationism/Intelligent Design), the Silly (New Age quantum enthusiasm), and the Snarky (out-of-hand dismissal of all sentiment associated with spirituality/religion). These three options define the edges of the debate. But because each one takes an absolutist position on issues that are really pretty fuzzy, it affords them a soapbox from which to yell loudly and with great vehemence. In the midst of the yelling, it can and will be difficult to trace out the outlines of a more nuanced position that speaks to the broad concerns of human being.
What we seek is a stance that honors the integrity of scientific practice, but allows the full measure of our humanity and human response to the world (both interior and exterior). Tracing out those positions becomes particularly critical as we come to face harsh choices about a future which will, inevitably, demand that choices be made involving science, technology, and values.
I spent an entire chapter in my book exploring the traditional debate and why it had exhausted itself. That does not mean, however, that its potential to cause real problems has gone away. Of the three traditional positions, it is the Sullen who, through well-funded and well-defined political activity, are most intent on forcing their views on others.
Over at Bad Astronomy, Phil Plait has been doing a good job tracking the latest act in the depressingly long disaster flick known as Creationism. While many of the postings I have done here at Reality Base focus on broader views of what humans do in science and what they think of as spiritual endeavor, the ritual burning of science education going on in Texas demands as much illumination as possible.
The details of the situation have been covered in a number of places, but here is the quick overview: The Texas State Board of Education is in the midst of deciding its science education standards. These are the specifications for what should be taught and what students are expected to know in the state of Texas. The board, which has far too many creationists on it, recently included reviews from representatives of the Discovery Institute, a front for the Intelligent Design “movement.” This will ensure another sad attempt to get evolution labeled “just a theory” and present the creationists’ non-science as an “alternative view.”
We have seen all of this before, of course. This case is particularly dangerous because in this review cycle, guidelines and textbook selections are reviewed together. The sad spectacle of a state’s public science education bureaucracy being hijacked by a religious viewpoint is bad enough, but it’s the textbooks that are the real problem. Texas is a big market for textbook publishers. The less scrupulous among them are willing to bend to market forces and downplay those aspects of biology that are considered troublesome (i.e. the foundational theory of evolution).
On Friday I had the opportunity to record a bloggingheads divalog with A.I. expert Eliezer Yudkowsky. It was a great exchange. While I still need to learn how to deal with the medium (you talk on the phone while recording video of just yourself—I ended up talking over Eliezer a bunch of times; he was very patient) it got me thinking about a variety of topics. One place in which Eliezer and I were strongly in disagreement was the definition of the word “mystery.”
What brought me into science was a strong sense that this whole “life” thing was very weird. As I have gotten older, I have come to respect that strangeness. The bare presence of things just comes to us day in and day out. That is what I mean by mystery. Nothing supernatural, just the irreducible “activity” or presence of being that no explanation, no description will wave away. Rather than write any more myself, let me throw down the words of others on this great subject.
From Albert Einstein:
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
Before touching on any new subjects in this ongoing discussion about transcending the traditional science v. religion debate, I thought it would be good to reprise some themes and keep the narrative quasi-linear. A month or so ago, I tried to lay the groundwork for getting past the usual categories in the way we publicly discuss science and religion (what I called the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky). The usual debates about creationism/evolution or quantum mechanics/New Age philosophy miss the point: Which direction do we turn now?
A number of alternatives are beginning to emerge as researchers struggle to find some balance. There is, for example, the religious naturalism of Ursula Goodenough and others in which the narratives of science, free of supernatural agents, are seen as an appropriate source of “religious feeling.” There is the reinvention of the sacred of Stuart Kauffman, in which nature’s fundamental non-reductionism allows for a creative universe. Other researchers are exploring other avenues.
Some of these I agree with, and some I do not. But taken as a whole, you can see creative people are thinking creatively and it’s leading in new directions. These perspectives may not all stay with us, but nonetheless their explication is a good thing.
Seattle may be the most beautiful city in the country (oh New York do not worry—I still love thee). I did my graduate work here in the physics department, and it’s always a little hard to come back because it is just so green and groove-o-tronic (so does everyone here need a tattoo sleeve now?).
In spite of my heartsickness, I have been lucky to have the chance to give a bunch of talks here on science, religion, and many topics in between. The Pacific Science Center holds a vibrant Science Café in a pub near the Seattle Center. I gave a presentation on time and cosmology there to a very engaged, very thoughtful audience on Tuesday. It’s a topic that clearly washes up against the shores of mythology and religion, and we all made the most of it. On Wednesday I spoke with Steve Sher on KUOW, a wonderful NPR station here in the emerald city. In both cases the issue of certainty came up for me. Steve Sher is both funny and insightful. His questions pushed me to spend much of the day reflecting on the role of, and desire for, certainty in both science and religion.
Certainty, I think, is the problem. Not in individual scientific work, of course—I really want to be certain that the massive astrophysics simulation code my research group has been working on for the last 7 years accurately reproduces the physics of stellar blast waves and turbulent star forming clouds (two of the topics we work on). And my colleagues at the University of Rochester want to be absolutely certain that the detectors they developed for the Spitzer Space Telescope function exactly as planned. With each investigation we undertake, and each paper we write, we want and need as much certainty as possible. That is a given.
Certainty becomes a problem when people are looking for some kind of ultimate all-encompassing answer.
Trying to get beyond the traditional science v. religion debate, we have had quite a bit of discussion here about the relevance and resonance of words: Sacred, Spiritual, Religion, Rationality. Today, I want to throw a new term into the mix, one that I discovered while trolling around in the literature of Religious Studies.
Being a scientist, and untrained in the scholarship on human spiritual endeavor, part of my research for my latest book involved making my way through Religion 101. That is where I encountered the extraordinary writings of Mircea Eliade and the heritage of “hierophany.”
Eliade was the doyen of the “Chicago School” of Religious Studies. He was a prodigious writer (anthropology, religious studies, novels, and plays) and was a controversial figure in both his ideas and his politics. Without doubt though he is considered one of the last century’s great thinkers on religion, its forms, and its relevance.
Separating the sacred from profane was crucial for Marcia Eliade. It guided his thinking about religion, and what he called “religious man.” Eliade points to the numinous, that elusive but illuminating ground of religious experience: “The numinous presents itself as something wholly other, something basically and totally different.” This is how he launches his account of religious man’s confrontation with the sacred.
This sense of the “wholly other” is what appears directly in our experience. What matters is how we encounter the scared. It appears, or erupts, into our lives. Thinking about it or theorizing on it misses its essential, living power. Eliade is explicit about definitions, and the idea that there is a fundamental gap that language cannot cross. The experience cannot be distilled into definitions or analytical concepts. Simply put, words fail. “Language is reduced to suggesting by terms taken from that experience,” he says. The experience of the world’s sacred character can never be wrapped up and contained—it can only be pointed to through metaphor or analogy.