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.
“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).