Tuesday, May 5, 2009

SCIENCE- RELIGION- Science and Religion in the Crosshairs

I’ve wound up in another of the endless debates that infect the internet like kudzu, on whether or not there is a God and whether or not He speaks with his children through religion. It makes sense that this, perhaps the oldest debate humanity has engaged in, would be a recurrent theme on the newest and freest of the ways man has invented to communicate. After all, the first thing that archeologists look for when probing the earliest origins of man is how he dealt with the dead. It seems that man existed for thousands of years in recognizable form before he started to develop civilization and that fledgling civilization had several interesting changes from the way people lived before. Man started to draw images on cave walls (the development of language), he started to live in larger groups (society as opposed to tribalism), he started to control his environment (the control of fire), and he started to have some sort of religion (ritual disposal of the dead).

The interesting thing about all these developments was that man had been around in recognizable form for about 100 thousand years before they came about. And then, about 70 thousand years ago, they all sprouted in a relatively quick fashion. This is what prompted Arthur C. Clarke to hit upon the idea for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Something- God, monolith, inspiration, a particularly compelling meme- changed mankind from a hairless ape to the creature that would cover the earth in an unprecedentedly short time. Something about us changed. We went from being just another animal to being human. With all the questions, abilities, and contradictions that entails.

And the basis of that seems to have been religion.

Nowadays many people want to denigrate religion. They say that belief in the unknown and unknowable is a throwback to superstition. They may be right. It took thousands of years after the development of religion to come up with the very idea of science, then called ‘natural philosophy’. As far as we can tell, it was the Ionians who first hit upon the idea that the world could be understood without resorting to supernatural explanations, but through observation and reason. It wasn’t something they hit upon through sheer intellectual abstraction, but was a direct result of their landing on a particularly barren Greek isle and having to develop a maritime economy to be able to feed themselves. Contact with varied cultures and mores led them to develop a rather practical and open-minded worldview. And the result of that was that they came up with the first philosophy based on observation and measurement rather than basing their society on charisma and heredity. For perhaps the first time in human development, capitalism, trade, and personal merit started to drive human development rather than heredity, strength, and tradition. The Ionians developed the first vestiges of the scientific method- though without the experimental rigor we associate with it. Nevertheless, their society affected the other Greek islands through their success and trade. It wasn’t long until Greece was the center of human knowledge. The Greeks seemed to be able to deal with the inherent dichotomy between belief in higher powers (gods to you and me) and the exploration of natural phenomena, perhaps largely because they dealt with nature the same way we deal with religion- everybody pulls a theory out of their ass and then everybody else judges it on how good it sounds to them. Remarkably, they found out some pretty groovy stuff about the physical world in spite of their disdain for testing their hypotheses’ through experimentation. Pythagoras developed geometry and music theory, Aristostenes not only deduced that the earth was round but calculated its circumference with astounding accuracy, and the Greeks in whole gave us the first reality based philosophy to understand the universe around us. They also invented democracy, and served as the basis for the Roman Empire- our own psychic progenitors, for those who think that only things in the US have any worth.

But lately religion has been falling out of vogue. The advancement of certain religious viewpoints and the political power they have gathered in the US, has made apparent the shortcomings in any world view that doesn’t take into account observable reality. The percentage of people who call themselves atheists has almost doubled in the last twenty years. But while I find myself firmly on the side of those who espouse objective observation over emotional fantasy, my contrairian roots cause me to remind our more vocal advocates of reality that there are limits to human knowledge and the thoughtful person has to admit that the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything is still in doubt.

All BELIEF SYSTEMS seem uninformed at best and silly at worst to anyone who doesn’t subscribe to them. Some say that religious belief isn’t an intellectual endeavor, yet a believer would say that a belief system based on the intellect alone was obviously limited. Science is a great way to find out things, but any physicist will tell you that there are hundreds of “constants” in physics that seem arbitrary. Yet unless they were set at the precise values they have, the universe as we know it would simply not exist. Values for the gravitational constant, the four primeval forces, the weight of sub-atomic particles, and dozens of other “givens” in the universe have to be precisely set for the universe to support the formation of stars, let alone life complex enough to ask such questions as “Why do stars form in the first place?” And there is no theoretical basis for any of these ‘constants’ to have the values that they have, either in Einsteinium, quantum, or string theory. Lee Smolin has come up with a theory that universes evolve and every singularity (black holes to the layman) is the genesis for another roll of the cosmic dice, and the anthropic principle implies that we might just be the outcome of one stable configuration of such chance. Hell, even without the exotic thinking of physicists, mere astronomers postulate such imaginary concepts as ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ to explain why our observations have only uncovered about 1/20 of what seems to be the entire universe. And they aren’t looking at things like the Copenhagen Interpretation or the multiple dimensions inherent in string theory.

The bottom line is that we are intelligent and rational (sometimes, at our best) but we have no guarantee that we can understand the universe we can observe. As Einstein said, the most amazing thing about the universe is that we can understand it at all. To assume that we might understand it is no more arrogant than to assume that the creator (if, indeed, the universe is an artifact) might want to communicate with us on some level. Perhaps Buddha was closest to the truth when he said that contemplation of such questions is a waste of time since you will never know the answers in this life. But that isn’t satisfying. We are curious creatures. We WANT answers. And in spite of the fact that the chances that the universe would exist in the way it does (1 x 10 exp233 according to Smolin- a chance against the universe existing that is greater than the total number of sub-atomic particles in the universe) we think that our brains (containing neuron connections somewhere on the order of 10 exp66- still greater than the number of atoms in the universe, but woefully simple nonetheless) can find answers to these questions. Science has claimed preeminance over spirituality since we started making fire with flint rather than simply gathering it from the lightening strikes provided by the ‘gods’. But we still know so little that either side is basically incapable of explaining either why the universe exists or even why we want to know.

Tiger gotta hunt, bird gotta fly, man gotta ask: why, why, why?
Tiger gotta sleep, bird gotta land, man gotta say: I understand.
Kurt Vonnegut

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