So it’s time to finish the thread on this discussion of science and religion. Many thanks to Melissa and DISCOVER for giving me the space to paint some ideas on this most contentious but vital subject. I am also extremely grateful to everyone who shared his or her thoughts in the comments. I learned a great deal from those discussions. In closing, I think its appropriate time to ask why the issue of “Science vs. Religion” or “Science and Religion” or whatever you want to call it matters at all. Why should we care? To answer that question, it’s best to face backwards.
Some time between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, something wonderful happened inside the heads of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. The light went on. We woke up to a sky full of repeating patterns, to an Earth incessantly shaped by wind and water, to environments shared with a wild abundance of life. Most importantly, we woke up to interior lives that responded to this vast “found” world with an emerging culture of painting, carvings, and music.
An essential aspect of this new human culture was mythological narratives of origins and endings. These grand myth systems set us in context against the backdrop of the experienced universe. Our mythologies created meaning by both explaining the world and interpreting the human place within it. Imagination and observation were braided strands of these narratives. Builders of Neolithic monuments with their multiple astronomical orientations were, in their way, paying attention to the world while simultaneously attending to internal responses to the night sky and the cycle of the seasons.
These were our beginnings. These were the imperatives that would later evolve into the modern forms of science and religion. We have been at this game for a long time.
Is there a gap which reductionist models of consciousness cannot cross? Lots of people find the idea that we are “nothing but” biological computers to be distasteful. How can all these profound feelings and experiences be just an epiphenomena (love that word) of goopy nerves as such?
Distasteful as it sounds to some, this explanation may, however, still be true. Or it may be that other levels of explanation are required. These explanations can be scientific and empirical and don’t ask for the “immortal soul” of traditional religions, yet aren’t quite as stridently minimalist as classic reduction.
This is a new domain for me and I knew, when I started writing my book, that I would eventually have to look into the emerging field of “consciousness studies.” My friend in the philosophy department here, Brad Weslake, teaches a course on philosophy of mind, and recommended the now-famous paper by Joseph Levine on explanatory gaps in explanations of consciousness.
Foundational studies of quantum physics hold a deep fascination for anyone interested in questions about the ultimate structure of the world. Quantum mechanics (QM) is now hovering around its 100th anniversary (depending on whether or not you take the work of Planck, Einstein, or Bohr to mark its true birth). Unlike other theories, quantum mechanics has proven to be remarkably elusive in terms of pinning down what truly, absolutely, no-kidding-anymore, really exists.
With classical physics, things were easy—it was all just billiard balls. Not so with quantum physics. As Feynman famously quipped, “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.” Interpretations abound, but agreement does not. Given the central role QM plays in understanding what the world is made of, this situation causes a lot of consternation for physicists. The problem boils down to reality, what’s in it, and what access we have to it.
Here at the University of Rochester, we’ve been running seminars on physics and philosophy. Last Friday, Peter Lewis, a philosopher from the University of Miami, visited and gave a great talk on the now famous “Many-Worlds Interpretation” of QM. His argument turned on probabilities in the Many-Worlds Interpretation. Rather than run through his reasoning on that topic, I thought it would be worth a note on the interpretation itself because it speaks so loudly to the central issue of what scientists think we are, ultimately, aiming for.
The problem with quantum mechanics is that the basic entity of its mathematical machinery—the so-called wave function—does not give a single prediction for the outcome of experiments. Instead it provides a description of many outcomes with associated probabilities which all seem to exist simultaneously. It is not until a measurement is made that the wave function gets suspended (collapsed is the term) to yield a single answer. Or, at least, that is the way the standard interpretation of QM tells the story.
In 1991, two British astronomers, Andrew Lyne and Matthew Bailes, created an uproar when they announced the discovery of a planet orbiting the neutron star PSR1829-10, a dead cinder of a once massive sun. The result thrilled and shocked the astronomical community. For two-and-a-half thousand years, philosophers and astronomers had asked if planets existed outside our solar system. Giordano Bruno’s execution formed one part of this long story. For all those years, the question remained steadfastly unanswerable. Lyne’s and Bailes’s discovery seemed to provide an answer. It was big news.
Unfortunately, a year later, at an astronomical meeting designed to present new results, Lyne stood before a large audience and announced that he and Bailes had gotten it wrong. With news cameras rolling, Lyne detailed how their analysis of the data had been in error. They were withdrawing their claim of discovery. There was a long pause, and then the audience came to its feet in a standing ovation.
Some argue that science is amoral, and that no inherent ethical conclusions can be drawn from scientific findings. There is, however, one precept that we scientists all take as holy from the time we begin as graduate students: “Tell the truth.” There is no greater sin in science than falsifying data or conclusions. Scientists are asked to let the world speak for itself, to observe without bias or preconceived ideas. In the ideal, scientists are asked to witness the world in its own great pathways of beauty, without the filter of prior desires or demands.
Brutal honesty about the character of the conclusions drawn in the investigations is a hallmark of sincere scientific practice. The scientist has to be honest with herself about the integrity of the result, and the possibility of error. That is why the audience saw Lyne and Bailes as heroes to be honored, not as failures to be shunned. Their narrative becomes part of the mythos of science, by calling its practitioners to a set a core of values that includes absolute honesty.