Science and Religion

I have written before about the conundrum that the universe poses us. Its history commenced spectacularly fourteen billion years ago with the big bang and out of that history evolved our own, the history of humankind. And of course the story of humankind and its earlier hominid relatives is a very recent one. Creatures somewhat like us evolved around two million years ago, in just the last blink of the evolutionary eye (in fact just 0.01% of the assumed cosmic history).
The dilemma we face in trying to understand all this is difficult to enunciate but I’ll try to give my version of it in what follows.
Most scientific explanations are objective, usually deterministic, with a little probability thrown in to discourage us from believing we can ever accurately predict our futures with any degree of certainty.
Whilst this might seem an unduly anthropocentric point of view, the universe would seem pointless without someone (or something) to be aware of it. But once we have sentient beings the universe can never be fully understood from an objective viewpoint. There are now subjective experiences to contend with that science seems ill-equipped to explain. Is evolution just about more effective arrangements of atoms and molecules improving the survival capability of organisms? Most of us would hope it was something more meaningful than this.
This opens up the space for a religious explanation.
Now I won’t insult your intelligence by mounting a critique of the fundamentalists and the literalists. People like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have easily knocked over these straw men. (And I must admit I have had a tilt at these easy targets myself.) Many believers are far more sophisticated than the more naïve reactionaries that the antagonists rail against.
(Although I must confess I was more taken with Hitchens’ polemic rather than Tony Blair’s when they came together in Toronto last November to debate whether religion was a force for good in the world. And of course Blair is no intellectual slouch. As part of his argument Hitchens quoted the American physicist, Steven Weinberg.
“In the ordinary moral universe the good will do the best they can, the worst will do the worst they can, but if you want to make good people do wicked things, you need religion.”)
Despite their dire prognostications for non-believers, most religions hold out hope for those who would believe their essential tenets. Science, on the other hand, seems to offer little optimism for the long-term for anybody. Take, for example, the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It holds that the most probable future state of the universe is one in which the available energy to produce and sustain such remarkable emergent phenomena as life, is irreversibly lost.
As John F Haught, the Christian scientist and theologian has written, “The universe is subject to entropy. Like a clock spring winding down over the course of time, it keeps losing the power to do work, including most notably the building up of organic complexity. And science knows nothing that will wind it up again.”
Our current understanding of science suggests that at some point in the future the enormous reserves of energy within the universe will expire completely. As a result all biological life would perish, supposedly eliminating consciousness and subjectivity. The universe would resort to being a decayed, unobserved, entirely physical and therefore relatively uninteresting phenomenon.
The British physicist, James Jeans in support of this hypothesis claimed that science has uncovered a universe hostile, or at least indifferent, to life and humanity. Jeans asks therefore, whether there is any more to life than strutting for a brief moment “on our tiny stage” armed only “with the knowledge that our aspirations are all but doomed to final frustration, and that” our achievements must perish with our race leaving the universe as though we had never been.
Or listen to the words of the renowned philosopher, Bertrand Russell.
“Brief and powerless is man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day; disdaining the coward terrors of the slave of Fate to worship at the shrine his own hands have built……”
Religion then offers a solution to the inexorable decay of the physical universe. It offers up hope to us in the face of the unremittent decline of the big bang’s spectacular creation. Whilst there are some variants to the theme I will in this essay consider the hope that Christianity offers knowing that there is little difference in the fundamental underplay of its alternatives.
Christianity offers new hope that the universe will be redeemed with the new coming of Christ. But I have reservations about this prognosis. This is a belief that came from a tribal interpretation of the way of the universe derived from the traditions of a small nomadic group of people ensconced is a semi-arid region of a small planet of a mediocre sun in a nondescript part of the universe.
I know their adherents believe it so, but it is a rather improbable outcome. If there were to be a divine revelation, and assuming there are more sentient beings than those that appear on this earth, or even knowing that others have a different view of what allows access to everlasting life, this would be a rather discriminatory revelation. This notion is reinforced by the dogma that it is only that those who believe in this rather arbitrary set of beliefs could possibly be offered access to a meaningful continuation of spiritual existence after physical demise. And it seems to fail a basic test of fairness that those who, from no fault of their own, have not been exposed to Christianity are then denied access to the benefits bestowed upon believers.
This seems to me a basic incongruity because religion is generally invoked because of its ability to render justice in the long term – those who have suffered in this life but maintained their faith are guaranteed reward in the next. It does not seem to make provision for those who because of an accident of birth (due either to geographical or temporal factors) have not had exposure to the dogma that purports to give them access to eternal life.
So we are then faced with an unhappy dichotomy between science and religion.
Science deals well with the objective and is deterministic, extrapolating the past into the future, building predictive models that largely work, and benefitting society in many ways that have improved our standard of living. There have been downsides of course, but not because of the science, which is value neutral, but by its inappropriate application. But science has largely failed to help us in any significant way in providing us with a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. (As outlined in previous blogs, this is what we crave, in order to meet our spiritual needs.) Science, however, except for a few irrational outliers, has been generally accepted by all nationalities and those of all belief systems.
Contrast this then, with religion. No religion has universal acceptance, nor is there any such likelihood in the foreseeable future. And certainly in the developed world our societies whilst tolerant of multiple religions are becoming more secular.
Christianity has its roots in a set of beliefs cobbled together some 3,000 years ago but augmented with the interpretation of some events that seem to have little historical authenticity purported to have taken place some two thousand years ago.
Whilst a religion based on an understanding of God should be timeless in its values and laws it is difficult to believe (and most theologians will agree) it is not impacted by its own historical context.
If we were to take a branch of science, say perhaps like medicine, we would surmise that the underpinnings of human health have not changed over the millennia but medicine has evolved with our greater scientific understanding.
Religion should also be prepared to envelop the greater understanding we now have of the universe. And indeed some theologians have tried to make allowance for this additional knowledge. However, most believers are firmly tied to the Biblical accounts written in ancient times.
Another problem we have explored in previous blogs is the tendency of many believers to take the writings literally when often the authors are using parables and metaphors to exemplify timeless truths.
But there is one feature of the aging universe that is intriguing me. Whilst as we saw above under the Second Law of Thermodynamics entropy is increasing resulting in a long term loss of energy and dispersal of matter, evolution is resulting in more complex organisms. In this respect creation is still occurring.
The Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called this process “complexification”. He believed that the universe was purposeful. And rather than just emanating from the big bang it was being inevitably drawn to an end which he called the Omega Point.
As I have stated before, it is my belief that the essential “stuff” of the universe is consciousness and indeed matter and energy are secondary manifestations of consciousness. If The Ground of Being is the universal consciousness then matter complexified by evolution is the vehicle for the dispersal of consciousness. Perhaps the Omega Point occurs when the universal consciousness has been reassembled and organic consciousness has evolved sufficiently to know directly its Source. Once that point is reached evolution has no further purpose, nor does science or religion!
If consciousness is the essential “stuff” of the universe then science, as we now know it, is ill-equipped to understand it. Most religions, as we now know them, are too parochial to understand it.

13 Replies to “Science and Religion”

  1. Hi Ted,

    Thank you for that essay onScience and religion.
    I am a firm believer in the point about consciousness, having a nodding aquaintance with the Yoga sutras of Patanjali. That is where I drew the conclusion that there is only one consciosuness. Our physical experience is the context by which we extract our personal memory from the whole.
    A recent article in New Scientist, headed Quantum Minds, discussed the apparent relationship to the mathematics of quantum theory and thinking. Mention was made of Hilbert space as containing all possible relationship to any item or thought and this leads to the uncertainty of quantum mechanics as well as ideas from ‘left field’.
    I would note that the Hilbert space is analogous with Bohm’s Implicate Order and the Hidden variables of Bohm and Hiley can be the unanticipated relationships acting on a quantum event.
    Of course, what this really means is that How We Think determines what we can think, and neither science or religion can accept any thoughts outside of their accepted terms of reference.
    SO it is only through writers such as you that some may understand there are other answers.
    I wish I could write like you, but I have left my run too late.

    Alan Oliver

  2. Thanks Alan. The sutras of Patanjali are quite inspirational. I believe I first came to know about them from the work of Ken Wilbur (in particular in the “Spectrum of Consciousness”)who quoted Patanjali extensively.

    I am not familiar with some of the references you mention but I have often quoted Bohm.

    Looks like I need to do a bit more homework.

    I must admit, I don’t think you would have much difficulty in matching my writing prowess. The only comment I would make is that if you are going to write, write about things you are passionate about!

    And Peter, I can’t help but concur. I believe I once wrote a blog called “Nationalism – The Infantile Disease”.

    Nationalism, like religion, is something we come by in a quite arbitrary fashion, and then because of our egos feel we have to passionately defend!

  3. Like most things in life you don’t appreciate them until they’re not there. I have missed my weekly blog pondering intellectual stimulation. Good to see you back Ted.

    As you say, it seems all but certain based on current knowledge that our universe is going to end up a cold dark infinitely scattered random distribution of particles. No life and no awareness of it. Very depressing from the typically human, “we are special” perspective. Personally I don’t see us as special. I am just happy to be along for the ride. The ultimate destination seems far less important than the journey.

    Your Omega Point concept is new to me Ted, although I have spoken to Dr Phil about a similar concept that he has. If in deed matter and energy are a manifestation of consciousness, it seem logical that the evolving complexity of life and neural complexity in particular will eventually evolve to the point where it can recognise itself. It could be argued that this has been happening for at least a couple of thousand years with enlightened sages assisting followers to become aware. I don’t see any increase in this though over the past thousand years, in fact there are perhaps less enlightened people today in this materially distracted world. The evolution of life takes time though I guess. Perhaps another hundred thousands years will make the difference, if of course our species is still around. If it’s not perhaps it is the next dominant species on this planet that will achieve the Omega Point. There is plenty of time.

    Thanks for the blogs Ted.

  4. Ted.

    As I mentioned last time we met, you continue to make me think and continue to give me confidence that thinking and doing things differently is possible. Thanks

  5. “We must attempt a bit of intellectual daring and, above all, we have to be prepared to listen and to learn from each other, showing mutual tolerance and acceptance in doing so. I do not yet see a dialogue of this kind taking place between mainstream theologians and mainstream scientists, but I fervently hope it will be one of the leading developments of the next few years.”

    John Polkinghorne, ‘Belief in God in an Age of Science (1998)’

    John Polkinghorne, FRS, KBE, is past president and fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, and
    Canon Theologian of Liverpool, England.

  6. “The development of physics, astronomy, mechanics, and chemistry was in fact impossible until they became valuefree,
    valueneutral,so that pure descriptiveness was possible.

    The great mistake that we are now learning about is that this model, which developed from the study of objects and of things, has been illegitimately used for the study of human beings. It is a terrible technique.

    It has not worked.”

    A despairing Abraham Maslow ‘The Farther Reaches of Human Nature’

  7. I like to think of the following:

    The Jesuits and Dominicans though Catholicism in Macau was forever. I vistied and found it wasnlt.
    People thought the world was flat. They had evidence – the horizon. Hmm.
    Economists thought that it was better to save than spend. Hence the Great Depression – thank goodness for Keynes.
    The subject must always be above self, otherwise you might not only be wrong, but tied to your failure.
    Now lets consider BODMAS and that bridge you drive across each day!

  8. Mobile phones and fishing are not compatible.

    Science and religion are not compatible.


    ‘Opposites are complementary’

    Neils Bohr.

  9. My last two mobile phones met their fate on fishing trips. Last time this happened I uttered a one-word “prayer” and it was answered with a new phone, water resistant to one metre. BTW – Did you see French scientists have recently reported finding sub-atomic particles that travel faster than light. Problematic for E=MC2, but perhaps leading to new horizons, or even “God”.

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