Science, Religion, and the Mystery Train

By Adam Frank | March 16, 2008 10:33 am

Adam FrankOn 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.

From the biologist Ursula Goodenough:

We are all, each one of us, ordained to live out our lives in the context of ultimate questions such as:

Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

Where do the laws of physics come from?

Why does the Universe seem so strange?

My response to such questions has been to articulate a covenant with mystery. Others of course prefer answers, answers that often include a concept of God. These answers are by definition beliefs because they can neither be proven nor refuted…. The opportunity to develop personal beliefs in response to questions of ultimacy, including the active decision to hold no beliefs at all, is central to the human experience. The important part, I believe, is that the questions be openly encountered. To take the Universe on—to ask Why Are Things As They Are—is to generate the foundation for everything else. [Emphasis added.]

Why does the Universe feel so strange? The more I learn about it through science, art, and all the other ways human beings come to know, the more delightfully strange it feels. And that, as the poets say, is a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

Adam 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.

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

Comments (32)

  1. Jason Heldenbrand

    God is a simple, but false answer for those seeking an easy out.

    Anyone who doesn’t want to be challenged by the mysteries of the universe and the scale it puts us in. Here on Earth we’re the big fish, masters of our domain but in the grandest scale of things we’re not even a piece of krill floating in the ocean. I suppose it bruises our egos to think we’re not the special pets of some benevolent being, but are our egos so fragile to need that sort of coddling?

    I would rather see a universe full of unsolved mysteries than a universe full of simple, false answers.

  2. Sebastian Marroquin

    Why is it that “scientist” and “atheist” have to be synonymous? My faith and my place in the universe are separate and harmonious entities. God is not my “easy out” He is merely what gives me the strength to ask the questions many laymen are afraid to ask. Science has always been my first and true love, my quest to find the truths is unending, but my faith is what keeps me grounded and strong.

  3. Michael D.

    I really like the second part of that Einstein quote as well (From the New Scientist “Space Blog”); I have read what I assume are other slightly different translations:

    It was the experience of mystery even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.

  4. “To feel the burning itch of curiosity requires both that you be ignorant, and that you desire to relinquish your ignorance. If in your heart you believe you already know, or if in your heart you do not wish to know, then your questioning will be purposeless and your skills without direction. Curiosity seeks to annihilate itself; there is no curiosity that does not want an answer. The glory of glorious mystery is to be solved, after which it ceases to be mystery.”

    – said of curiosity, first of the 12 virtues of rationality

    “Ignorance exists in the map, not in the territory. If I am ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about my own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself. A phenomenon can seem mysterious to some particular person. There are no phenomena which are mysterious of themselves. To worship a phenomenon because it seems so wonderfully mysterious, is to worship your own ignorance.”

    Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions

    “Confusion exists in the map, not in the territory. Unanswerable questions do not mark places where magic enters the universe. They mark places where your mind runs skew to reality… But the wonderful thing about unanswerable questions is that they are always solvable, at least in my experience. What went through Queen Elizabeth I’s mind, first thing in the morning, as she woke up on her fortieth birthday? As I can easily imagine answers to this question, I can readily see that I may never be able to actually answer it, the true information having been lost in time. On the other hand, “Why does anything exist at all?” seems so absolutely impossible that I can infer that I am just confused, one way or another, and the truth probably isn’t all that complicated in an absolute sense, and once the confusion goes away I’ll be able to see it. This may seem counterintuitive if you’ve never solved an unanswerable question, but I assure you that it is how these things work.”

    Wrong Questions

  5. vel

    The only way “religion” exists is that yes, indeedy, humans do create it. However, this doesn’t mean that any supernatural exists and therefore, attempting to “allow” science and religion to co-exist is nonsensical. Something can’t co-exist if it doesn’t exist at all.

    If all one is calling “religion” is what we don’t know, a “mystery”, that’s bastardizing the definition of the word. I can still be amazed by what I understand. To claim so is just attempting to find one more gap for a “god” to hide in and to salve your fears of mortality.

  6. Charles Schmidt

    What is a mystery changes with time four-thousand years ago a rainbow was a sign from god and a mystery, today we know what causes a rainbow but that does not make it any less beautiful, awe inspiring now and on some level mysterious still. We need no longer put off on to a deity the drought, tornados and other things because we were bad or the opposite because we were good. We know the reasons however, that does not take away what they inspire in us.

    The problem with religion is that from the viewpoint of each theirs it the only true one and the others must be completely eradicated along with its believers. But it has been the same in the past when one group beat and enslaved another. No matter what we know on some level we will still experience the mystery in some way.

  7. PeterS

    Eliezer, clearly ignorance or confusion ‘exists in the map, not in the territory’. This is trivially true. But underlying your writings is the assumption that our very fine cognitive apparatus can, with time and diligence, fully explore the territory and enlarge the map, thereby reducing and potentially eliminating confusion or ignorance.

    But that is a very large assumption. We tend to believe this assumption because of the magnificent successes of our intellectual endeavours. But it is still an assumption.

    We do not and indeed cannot know, whether our cognitive apparatus is capable of constructing a complete map.

    We do not know whether some parts of the territory are for ever hidden from us by, for example, singularities or information horizons.

    So we must approach this assumption with caution, especially when modern physics and cosmology contain fascinating hints that parts of the territory are unreachable in principle.

    Then also there may be parts of the territory we can only ever dimly perceive and hardly understand at all. In other words all we will ever perceive of those parts of the territory are the vaguest of clues.

    Our success in enlarging the map of the territory does not guarantee that we can map the entire territory. So in principle, I cannot rule out the mysterious.

    But that I cannot deny its possibility does not require me to believe in the mysterious. So why believe in it? The short answer is that the human experience points to it, that many fine minds in the science community have come to accept it and ultimately it is a transforming, enriching experience.

  8. Mike Gottschalk

    @Eliezer Yudkowski: Your use of the map metaphor, indicates a common belief about maps; that is, the best map would represent the territory ahead one to one in every detail. In reality, this scale of representation makes for a poor map. A good map, represents the features that are significant to a goal of orientation while leaving the insignificant off the map. A good map maker is one who can discern the signal from the noise.

    What is interesting to me Eliezer, is your underlying assumption that in the thousands of years of civilization, we still don’t know the territory of human being; that A.I. will show us a better map, and with this map in hand, we will discern the significant from the noise rightly. In other words, if you succeed in your goals, you will have replicated something that already exists: you. Or, a better Macintosh.

    So what ignorance are you seeking to demystify? Tell me which significant feature in the human territory is missing from our maps, that if illustrated properly, would give us a more useful sense of orientation than we currently know. As a civilization, we don’t suffer from an unfamiliarity of our territory: nobody in the history of mankind has known our territory better. And yet we are suffering. Why? I really want to know your answers to these questions.

  9. Steve F.

    Like Adam, mystery was my formative impulse. I still have to remind myself to be practical, to earn money to support my family, etc., as my burning desire has always been to know. I even studied quantum mechanics because it mystified me.

    My take on mystery is that it is a kind of built in premonition, if you will, of our potential to know. While I can’t say I understand quantum mechanics, I’ve done enough experiments to understand that some parts of it – say, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle – are not that mysterious. Its entanglement that’s mysterious.

    The biggest mystery of all, of course, is God. I see all kinds of comments, both here and elsewhere, where folks are dismissing belief in God. Its a pity, because these people think they know what the unknowable is, losing themselves in the limitations of their own lack of imagination and openness.

    And one of the mysteries of God is that God, like knowledge itself, is supernatural, meaning above nature (thats the meaning of the word “supernatural,” a word derived from “super”, which means “above”, and natural, which means, well, “natural”).

    So when you start on the exploration of the mystery of God, you are not only starting to explore the powers of your own intelligence – that particular supernatural phenomena that we own and operate – but the powers of intelligence in general, and then, of course, the question of what role intelligence plays in the cosmos.

    I feel sorry for those who, because of the ideologies of materialism, cut themselves off from these higher registers of life. They refuse the generous bounty of mystery, accepting only their pre-existing, inherited map of reality.

    Steve F.

  10. Beck

    Charles Schmidt Says:
    “The problem with religion is that from the viewpoint of each theirs it the only true one and the others must be completely eradicated along with its believers. But it has been the same in the past when one group beat and enslaved another. No matter what we know on some level we will still experience the mystery in some way.”

    Comments like this tend to come from a view that religion is essentially equated solely with experience of the Abrahamic faith traditions. This view is reductionist and innacurate. I realize that the great majority of the “Science v. Religion” debate comes from Western society and the schism between the Church and the Universities it founded a few centuries back, but I’m starting to find it quite annoying that so many scientists feel the need to equate All religion with their particular facet of it.

    There are many religions which have been able to divorce the experience of their faith and it’s mysteries from the political motivars that continue to drive people to kill their neighbors (mostly Resources, Power or an overabundance of young men otherwise unable to secure enough of a living to attract mates)

  11. Steve F.

    Beck says:

    “I’m starting to find it quite annoying that so many scientists feel the need to equate all religion with their particular facet of it.”

    I agree – the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (Harris, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hitchens) – bear this out in spades. Even inching towards a scientific perspective, it is a complete no-no.

    So why do we see people so consistently doing this? After all, blindly characterizing, say, one billion Christians, as all thinking like one’s grammar school teacher, which is how Hitchens has it, is precisely the kind of thing you wouldn’t do if you were being scientific.

    Harris basically has all Muslims as incipient terrorists, a rather striking point of view not weighted towards factual accuracy.

    My view is that modern European-based opposition to religion has taken on much of the colorings of religious dogma. In a sense, its the end game of secular humanism – its fundamentalist phase, so to speak. That makes sense if you think of modern anti-religion as European social movement.

    I do want to put in a plug for Abrahamic Faith traditions.

    It is not so much the Abrahamic Faith traditions, but rather Christianity as it developed in Europe, that has developed the one-size fits all model of religion. You might not guess that from a survey of Islam or Judaism today, but historically – i.e., for many multiples of centuries – the Abrahamic traditions thrived in multi-religious environments outside of the hard-line core of European Christianity-or-else states.

    Steve F.

  12. Science and religion have co-existed as long as humans have been around to question and experiment. It is their separation that causes so much confusion, that and the rigid dogmas created by humans with the power over others to do so. Science and religion are made for the exploration of the mystery. It is the power players from the beginning of civilization as it began its march to the sea destroying all cultures in which science and religion co-existed peacefully in its path. Now that the job is nearly finished some of us are seeing the error in that kind of thinking though we have little power to do much of anything about it…except to do what we’ve always done, debate and explore. Some important areas seem to be taboo, however. What seems most silly to me is science holding onto the notion of spontaneous generation, the idea that life comes from non life. If we didn’t live in a living universe we would not be living. Is that a leap of faith or logic, I don’t think so. I think it is a logical conclusion but the mystery of how and why remain for debate and exploration. The various dogmas of science/religion should be jettisoned, and soon will be out of necessity I expect, as the human organism comes back together. Religion is not about the supernatural, that is dogma, religion is natural and is about the question of what to believe, science is about seeking answers to the question. It is civilization’s dogmas that keep each discipline apart. Polarization is a powerful tool for those in the position to use it.

  13. >As a civilization, we don’t suffer from an unfamiliarity of our territory: nobody in the >history of mankind has known our territory better.
    Mike, this statement is simply not true. Native cultures who had evolved in place based societies new their territory much better than we. We don’t really look at our territory much as our science has its eyes turned outward much more than inward. It was the split way back in Greece when some thought the universe was mechanical while others thought it was alive. The mechanical view prevailed and now comes full circle slowly through the dogmas to discover that it is alive.

  14. Steve F.

    Howard, you write:

    “Religion is not about the supernatural, that is dogma, religion is natural and is about the question of what to believe, science is about seeking answers to the question.”

    I think it is as equally dogmatic to arbitrarily rule out the supernatural as it is to insist that everything is simply matter.

    In fact, the latter necessitates the former. If all nature is just matter, then life, and especially intelligence, is necessarily supernatural, i.e., above nature. The situation is similar to that which you allude to in your posts.

    This is why the materialistic view of consciousness- certainly the prevailing one among scientists and philosophers these day – is so illogical.

    Basically, consciousness and related issues like intelligence have to arise by smoke, mirrors, and magic – miracles – rather than being there potentially from the start. The same is true for the spark of life.

    It is much more logical to say that life and intelligence were there potentially all along, built into what we call the laws of nature. This, of course, is what the religions have always said, albeit in sometimes very tortured ways. The idea of God, of course, is an extrapolation – similar to extrapolations in science – from this realization.

    Steve F.

  15. Mike Gottschalk

    Hi Howard- If you look at the whole paragraph, you will see that it is a very pointed question: a question that is asked in the context of map making and A.I. science.

    More than seeing reality as it is, we see the reality that we can, or are willing to look for. Out of the whole of reality, I receive the signals that are significant to me. The features that stand out as significant to me are the features for which I have ideas to see them with: I perceive something shiny and red; is it a Poreche or a Radio Flyer? At the core of existing as human being, we decipher signals and build our worlds with them. Out of all the signals present in this infinite field, we conduct a truly subjective act of discerning which ones make salient features; this core feature of our map making interface with reality, gives rise to culture- both the one that we experience within, and the one we live in together.

    My question to Eliezer, urges him to consider the full potential of ignorance. Ignorance involves not only what is known or not known, it involves what one cares to know as well. I think where Eliezer is blind to Adam’s point about Mystery, is in his equating mystery with ignorance: as if those of us who “get it” are blown away by the immensity of a research project for which he has the kahunas and we don’t. What Eliezer doesn’t see, is that our experience of Mystery stems from our willingness to see everything- not our ignorance. We know the difference between not knowing and knowing all too well.

    So I more than agree with you, when you cite the knowing abilities of cultures other than those based on modernity. I’m also saying that there’s something ironic about using real intelligence to make artificial intelligence with the goal of making superior intelligence- especially when I see Eliezer’s ignorance of ignorance itself.

  16. Steen

    @ Steve. Science MUST rule out the supernatural. You can call that a weakness or a strength, depending on what you are exploring, but it is the reality.

    As such, intelligence and consciousness, being observable, testable and measurable, fits very well into a scientific inquiry. So your assertion that it is supernatural, that assertion simply doesn’t hold water. It is getting dangerously close to the type of sophistry and analogies that the ID crowd serves up, that if a=b, then it must be equivalent to c=d. It is not a matter of degree of difference, but rather about how well something fits within the Scientific Method.

    Your attack on typical science as illogical seems solely based on such arguments of proportionality. Your claim of the smoke and mirrors is a conclusion based on invalid data and sophistic arguments.

    It almost have the flavor of a pity party, the mean scientists deliberately discriminating against the supernatural, when reality is that it is all about the data. Science is based on data. Unless you have it, it simply is not science, only wishful thinking.

    That is why it is so important to know the Scientific Method. Unfortunately, most of the ones who want to make arguments about how science is somehow invalid (most extremely noticed among the YEC) have absolutely no knowledge of what science is, or how data is gathered, nor of what constitutes evidence. THAT is what makes the creationists look outright stupid or outright lying in the eyes of those who actually understand the science.

    Perhaps someone have data on how effectively the Scientific Method is taught in the various levels of the educational system? It really seems at the root of the problems science face from the “outside,” the incredible ignorance of what science is, even at the basic level.

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