The Awe-ful Truth about Science and Religion: Part I

By Adam Frank | March 31, 2008 11:21 am

Adam Frank“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.

I have tried to argue that a more enlivened perspective on science and religion could begin with experience. The experience of awe is a good place to start. Why? Because there are many open-minded and thoughtful individuals who come from different perspectives. Some call themselves atheist, some are agnostics, and some are believers. Finding a common ground for these folks would be a good thing. Building a language that goes beyond easy antagonism and touches something true about human experience would free us all to think more creatively and in new ways about our place in a world saturated with the fruits of science.

So if Otto identifies awe as the defining characteristic of experiences traditionally called religious, and if that same sense of awe is characteristic of encounters with science’s grand vision, why not start exactly at this point? Why not use this kind of experience, freed from metaphysical speculation, to identify a new axis around which discussions of both science and human spiritual endeavor can turn? This capacity for awe is ancient. By focusing on it, we might learn more about ourselves, our response to the world, and the real context of the science we cherish.

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
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Comments (50)

  1. Charles Schmidt

    Depending on the prospective of the person one persons awe is another’s dread. They may be two sides of the same coin but they are opposites and do not give the same feeling or sense to the person. A religious experience may give a feeling of awe to a person but seeing what science shows may give fill them with dread and for others the opposite may be true. That being said I don not think that they both will get you to the same place, feeling or idea. If we are to find a common ground if we can there must be some points that can be agreed on or to. But when some say that god is an illusion and some others say that science and its finding are an illusion it will be most difficult to do if it can be done.

  2. The Jewish and Christian religions did indeed start with experiences. For example: Abraham experienced hearing God speak his promises to him. Jesus’ disciples walked with him, got to know him, heard his teaching, and then experienced his resurrected presence among them after the first Easter. Both Judaism and Christianity are rooted in historical events, not in “theoretical gymnastics.”

    Being rooted in history, both religions therefore make claims about reality, about real time-and-space historic events. Neither religion is interested just in theory, but also in empirical experience.

    Note, however, that these experiences were far more than moments of undefined awe. They had content to them. For Christ’s immediate followers, the content was real conversation, meals, and physical contact with him in his resurrected body. It was also his ethical and spiritual teaching (propositional content).

    If your desired rapprochement of science and religion is going to begin with an experience of awe, that is entirely consistent with both Judaism and Christianity. Psalm 19 famously begins with a statement of awe felt upon observing the starry skies. This is certainly much the same kind of thing listeners to your lectures have reported. It does not stop there, though, it moves to content: the glory of God revealed in creation, his handiwork.

    Every religion takes a different approach. All include content, not just experience. They contradict each other in many ways, which is a warning against trying to gain some kind of connection to “religion,” vaguely unspecified. There is no such thing as “religion” with no qualifier attached to it, except as an abstraction practiced by no one. Thus, while there is certainly nothing to object to in starting with experience, one must be cautious not to equate experience with religion, or to think that one can deal with content-less religion.

    A Christian such as myself will say of one’s awe-ful experience, “Very likely that is God you are experiencing in that moment: the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, whom you can know much more fully and richly through his revelation in the Bible.” If you offer anything less than that, we may say, “You are offering us the content-less, vague religion that nobody practices, or at least, that we certainly do not practice.”

  3. God has been proven to exist based upon the most reserved view of the known laws of physics. For much more on that, see Prof. Frank J. Tipler’s below paper, which among other things demonstrates that the known laws of physics (i.e., the Second Law of Thermodynamics, general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Standard Model of particle physics) require that the universe end in the Omega Point (the final cosmological singularity and state of infinite informational capacity identified as being God):

    F. J. Tipler, “The structure of the world from pure numbers,” Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as “Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything,” arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007.

    Out of 50 articles, Prof. Tipler’s above paper was selected as one of 12 for the “Highlights of 2005″ accolade as “the very best articles published in Reports on Progress in Physics in 2005 [Vol. 68]. Articles were selected by the Editorial Board for their outstanding reviews of the field. They all received the highest praise from our international referees and a high number of downloads from the journal Website.” (See Richard Palmer, Publisher, “Highlights of 2005,” Reports on Progress in Physics website.)

    Reports on Progress in Physics is the leading journal of the Institute of Physics, Britain’s main professional body for physicists. Further, Reports on Progress in Physics has a higher impact factor (according to Journal Citation Reports) than Physical Review Letters, which is the most prestigious American physics journal (one, incidently, which Prof. Tipler has been published in more than once). A journal’s impact factor reflects the importance the science community places in that journal in the sense of actually citing its papers in their own papers. (And just to point out, Tipler’s 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper could not have been published in Physical Review Letters since said paper is nearly book-length, and hence not a “letter” as defined by the latter journal.)

    See also the below resources for further information on the Omega Point Theory:

    Theophysics: God Is the Ultimate Physicist (a website on GeoCities)

    Tipler is Professor of Mathematics and Physics (joint appointment) at Tulane University. His Ph.D. is in the field of global general relativity (the same rarefied field that Profs. Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking developed), and he is also an expert in particle physics and computer science. His Omega Point Theory has been published in a number of prestigious peer-reviewed physics and science journals in addition to Reports on Progress in Physics, such as Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society (one of the world’s leading astrophysics journals), Physics Letters B, the International Journal of Theoretical Physics, etc.

    Prof. John A. Wheeler (the father of most relativity research in the U.S.) wrote that “Frank Tipler is widely known for important concepts and theorems in general relativity and gravitation physics” on pg. viii in the “Foreword” to The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986) by cosmologist Prof. John D. Barrow and Tipler, which was the first book wherein Tipler’s Omega Point Theory was described. On pg. ix of said book, Prof. Wheeler wrote that Chapter 10 of the book, which concerns the Omega Point Theory, “rivals in thought-provoking power any of the [other chapters].”

    The leading quantum physicist in the world, Prof. David Deutsch (inventor of the quantum computer, being the first person to mathematically describe the workings of such a device, and winner of the Institute of Physics’ 1998 Paul Dirac Medal and Prize for his work), endorses the physics of the Omega Point Theory in his book The Fabric of Reality (1997). For that, see:

    David Deutsch, extracts from Chapter 14: “The Ends of the Universe” of The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes–and Its Implications (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1997); with additional comments by Frank J. Tipler. Available on the Theophysics website.

    The only way to avoid the Omega Point cosmology is to resort to physical theories which have no experimental support and which violate the known laws of physics, such as with Prof. Stephen Hawking’s paper on the black hole information issue which is dependent on the conjectured string theory-based anti-de Sitter space/conformal field theory correspondence (AdS/CFT correspondence). See S. W. Hawking, “Information loss in black holes,” Physical Review D, Vol. 72, No. 8, 084013 (October 2005); also at arXiv:hep-th/0507171, July 18, 2005.

    That is, Prof. Hawking’s paper is based upon empirically unconfirmed physics which violate the known laws of physics. It’s an impressive testament to the Omega Point Theory’s correctness, as Hawking implicitly confirms that the known laws of physics require the universe to collapse in finite time. Hawking realizes that the black hole information issue must be resolved without violating unitarity, yet he’s forced to abandon the known laws of physics in order to avoid unitarity violation without the universe collapsing.

    Some have suggested that the universe’s current acceleration of its expansion obviates the universe collapsing (and therefore obviates the Omega Point). But as Profs. Lawrence M. Krauss and Michael S. Turner point out in “Geometry and Destiny” (General Relativity and Gravitation, Vol. 31, No. 10 [October 1999], pp. 1453-1459; also at arXiv:astro-ph/9904020, April 1, 1999), there is no set of cosmological observations which can tell us whether the universe will expand forever or eventually collapse.

    There’s a very good reason for that, because that is dependant on the actions of intelligent life. The known laws of physics provide the mechanism for the universe’s collapse. As required by the Standard Model, the net baryon number was created in the early universe by baryogenesis via electroweak quantum tunneling. This necessarily forces the Higgs field to be in a vacuum state that is not its absolute vacuum, which is the cause of the positive cosmological constant. But if the baryons in the universe were to be annihilated by the inverse of baryogenesis, again via electroweak quantum tunneling (which is allowed in the Standard Model, as baryon number minus lepton number [B - L] is conserved), then this would force the Higgs field toward its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant and thereby forcing the universe to collapse. Moreover, this process would provide the ideal form of energy resource and rocket propulsion during the colonization phase of the universe.

    Prof. Tipler’s above 2005 Reports on Progress in Physics paper also demonstrates that the correct quantum gravity theory has existed since 1962, first discovered by Richard Feynman in that year, and independently discovered by Steven Weinberg and Bryce DeWitt, among others. But because these physicists were looking for equations with a finite number of terms (i.e., derivatives no higher than second order), they abandoned this qualitatively unique quantum gravity theory since in order for it to be consistent it requires an arbitrarily higher number of terms. Further, they didn’t realize that this proper theory of quantum gravity is consistent only with a certain set of boundary conditions imposed (which includes the initial Big Bang, and the final Omega Point, cosmological singularities). The equations for this theory of quantum gravity are term-by-term finite, but the same mechanism that forces each term in the series to be finite also forces the entire series to be infinite (i.e., infinities that would otherwise occur in spacetime, consequently destabilizing it, are transferred to the cosmological singularities, thereby preventing the universe from immediately collapsing into nonexistence). As Tipler notes in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity (pp. 49 and 279), “It is a fundamental mathematical fact that this [infinite series] is the best that we can do. … This is somewhat analogous to Liouville’s theorem in complex analysis, which says that all analytic functions other than constants have singularities either a finite distance from the origin of coordinates or at infinity.”

    When combined with the Standard Model, the result is the Theory of Everything (TOE) correctly describing and unifying all the forces in physics.

  4. jdporter

    “the cannon of academic religious studies programs ”

    I am trying to imagine such a cannon, and the blast it would make.

  5. I think that is the second time I have made that mistake. Oops.

  6. Actually I think the appropriate response is, “I think that is the second time I have made that mistake. Blast!” :)

  7. Well, Adam Frank, let me pose to you this inquiry: What say you regarding the Omega Point quantum gravity Theory of Everything (TOE) describing and unifying all the forces in physics?

    Bear in mind that it’s been published, with praise by the journal referees and editors, in one of the world’s leading physics journals (i.e., Reports in Progress in Physics).

    In your posts, you certainly appear to be searching for God.

    Well, here is God for you. And not in some nebulous musing, but in a rigorous and precise manner.

    So I’m interested in hearing what you think.

  8. “Why Classical Mechanics limited”
    In this article, from the perspective of classical philosophy, I explain why neither Newton’s laws nor the laws of Coulomb’s interaction of charges work in quantum mechanics. Then, from the same point of view, I explain the nature of the conflicting definitions of micro particles etc…

  9. Louis Brassard

    There is a religious dimension to humanity. This is much deeper than any set of believes about the world.

    Blake and the romantists artists and philosophers of the 19th century have pointed out this “awe feeling” as essentially religious.

    The religious dimension is also related to the feeling of purpose and meaning of life and to a hidden transcendental dimension to life.

    One may agree that the religious dimension is fundamental to the human spyche but also assume that it is something that is essentially misleading and dangerous for our rationality.

    If we assume that this religious feeling is not misleading but essentially true, then we are lead to consider that it is intrinsic to the evolution of the cosmos. This is “Pantheism”.

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