The Beauty of Atoms: Are Science and Religion Compatible?

Just by way of framing.

I use the term ‘science’ to refer to the scientific method in its pure form — being a method of falsification through trial and error, grounded in the principle of epistemic humility and a quest for truth devoid of dogma. This framework enhances our knowledge about objective reality and progresses our technological development. Yet any tool or philosophy can be weaponized. The word “science” has, in recent times, increasingly been misused and misapplied by political leaders in an attempt to add credibility to their — often unscientific — agendas. As such, I fear that some people may have a distorted view of what science truly entails.

I use the term ‘religion’ to refer to those ancient philosophies that seek to pass on experiential wisdom and anecdotal heuristics. These teachings often have a particular focus on deontological ethics, meaning a focus on right action independent of its consequences (Christians are encouraged to “turn the other cheek” and “love thy neighbour” unconditionally). In using this term I do not refer to the institutional form of religion that has caused much harm in society through its corruption of power, exploitation of vulnerable believers, and narratives about eternal damnation and justifications of poverty. These forms of religion are abhorrent and, analogously to the term ‘science’, I fear that some people may have a distorted view of what religion truly entails.

Introduction

Karl Popper noted that dogmatism was an inevitable stepping stone in the progression of one’s intellectual maturation towards becoming a critical thinker, although often times people remain at this stage of development for an indefinite period. Hindsight is a wonderful framework for analysis and I look back on the evolution of my own views about the relationship between science and religion with interest.

Discussions comparing science and religion are often framed as a binary choice. I think this does a great disservice to the respective utility of both, as they are not necessarily incompatible with one another. The physicist Sean Carroll notes that the demarcation between science and religion is a relatively new phenomenon. 500 years ago, such a split did not exist. The divergence only emerged as the discoveries of science began to challenge conventional theological beliefs about the supremacy of ‘man’ (historical usage) and our place in the universe. The period known as The Enlightenment liberated humanity from the chains of authority as, in the words of Immanuel Kant, “The Enlightenment is the emancipation of man from a state of self-imposed tutelage…of incapacity to use his own intelligence without external guidance”.

The extraordinary improbability of life — or in the words of Gottfried Leibniz, “the real mystery is why is there something rather than nothing at all?” — seems too perfect to be a result of mere chance or random evolutionary processes. This is partially why we search for divine explanations. But the sheer improbability of life should, in and of itself, compel us to marvel at the beauty of nature and do everything in our power to preserve this perfect storm of conditions for the only known existence of life in the universe. This is precisely where, at least in my opinion, the dogmatism of religious belief in creationism can be self-defeating, by stressing that only an intelligent designer could have created such perfect conditions for life. Paradoxically, the discoveries of science have actually enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the underlying interconnectedness of all life on Earth — whether that be the fact that every molecule of DNA in both animate and inanimate matter encodes information in the same process, or the fact that we are all composed of the same atoms as the stars in the sky. This inherent oneness is something which religion has long sought to emphasise. If religious thinkers adopted some of the reverence for the natural world that pagan traditions have long held, there may be more of a symbiosis and dialectic between science and religion. The archetypical conception of the figure of Christ as resting within the soul of every human being is somewhat analogous to theoretical physicists’ discovery that the stardust emanating from the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago is encoded in our very bodies.

Science

“Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity and it teaches people to accept reality, with wonder and admiration, not to mention the deep joy and awe that the natural order of things brings to the true scientist.” — Lise Meitner

The fundamental presupposition of science is that we are bound by our infinite ignorance and, therefore, anything we know about the world is merely a conjecture that could be refuted at some point in the future if new evidence emerges that contradicts our hypothesis. If we are confronted by a contradiction, we know that the contradiction does not rest in reality but in our human knowledge about reality itself. If this happens, we update and iterate accordingly. Neil Turok has said that “physics is a message from the future” because of its ability to reveal previously hidden truths. In this way, the study of physics is a study of who we really are.

Reframed in this light, science takes on a more humanistic and creative identity. Karl Popper talked about science as a human creation and insisted that we ought to look upon the history of science “as part of the history of ideas, on a level with the history of art or literature”. The lyrical descriptions by Carl Sagan in describing this Pale Blue Dot that we inhabit (Planet Earth) — and the pettiness of our tribal divisions, warring factions and hatred of one another — are on a par with the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the sonnets of Shakespeare or the literature of Dostoevsky.

Religion

“In other living creatures, ignorance of self is nature; in man it is vice” — Boethius

Richard Tarnas notes that even in the Hellenestic era of Ancient Greece, the “austere rationalism” of the main philosophies at that time — Epicureanism, Stoicism and Skepticism — “left a certain spiritual hunger”. It is, at least in my opinion, fair to say that the propensity for certain scientific models to explain all reality through a reductionist analysis which deconstructs the whole into the sum of its parts can be fallacious due to the complexity of life, complexity which leads to emergent properties and behaviours that are not present in the individual parts that constitute the whole. The true scientist is well aware that an absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence and, in light of the continued uncertainty surrounding many of the more contentious metaphysical questions, it is best to reserve judgement and remain open to the possibility that we may not yet have to tools to grasp the fundamental underpinnings of reality.

Immanuel Kant displays this synthesis of the critical scientific attitude with the theological urge to leave the door open to divine revelation and existence wonderfully when he says, “much as my words may startle you, you must not condemn me for saying: every man creates his God. From the moral point of view…you even have to create your God, in order to worship in Him your creator. For in whatever way…the Deity should be made known to you, and even…if He should reveal Himself to you: it is you…who must judge whether you are permitted [by your conscience] to believe in Him, and to worship Him”. This is how religion was intended to be. The Italian Benedictine monk, philosopher and Catholic theologian Anselm, said that “it seems to me a case of negligence if, after becoming firm in our faith, we do not strive to understand what we believe”. This opens the possibility of refuting such faith, a disposition that would enhance theists’ credibility if they were more willing to adopt this proactive and inquisitive approach.

“We are the means for the Universe to become conscious of itself” — Julian Huxley

Even the great Nobel laureate physicist Erwin Schrödinger suggested that we are all part of an “omnipresent, all-comprehending eternal self”. Schrödinger was heavily influenced by the ancient Hindu scriptures the Upanishads. Ever since Albert Einstein first proposed the Unified Field Theory, the findings of theoretical and quantum physics — from string theory to the origins of the universe — have added increasing weight to the nondualism view of the unity of life.

Brian Greene speaks of the romance of mathematics with its “creativity constrained by logic and a set of axioms which dictates how ideas can be manipulated and combined to reveal unshakeable truths”. Mathematics provides us with an apparently perfect language that describes the patterns of the cosmos. The fact that E=mc2 or that 1+1=2 provides a level of certainty that is hard to come by in a universe characterised by chaos and uncertainty. This may have been why Pythagoras viewed mathematics as representing the harmony of the universe, embedding mathematics with a mystical, almost transcendent quality. Leibniz perhaps stakes the claim for the most eloquent description of this when he ascribed a mystical quality to the square root of –1, seeing it as a manifestation of “the Divine Spirit” and calling it “that amphibian between being and non-being”.

We can describe those assertions that are scientifically non-testable as metaphysical. They have merit and are not meaningless simply because they are unscientific. They can provide our lives with meaning, which is something that we all need to survive.

Conclusion

“Now, more often than not, contemplating the far future leaves me with a feeling of calm and connection, as if my own identity hardly matters because it has been subsumed by what I can only describe as a feeling of gratitude for the gift of experience” — Brian Greene

Anyone who believes exclusively in the validity of the hard sciences as the supreme and exclusive mechanism for understanding and making sense of the world risks being portrayed as close-minded as the most zealous fundamentalist religious thinker. The scientist who is open to finding truth in any and all sources — irrespective of its epistemological foundations — is, of course, spared this intellectual damnation. In the words of Leo Strauss, one should either be “the philosopher open to the challenge of theology or the theologian open to the challenge of philosophy.”

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” — Marie Howe

In my eyes the conflict between science and religion is largely academic, despite the significance of its implications and how much public discourse it has occupied since the period of The Enlightenment. The beauty of human existence and the natural world — and the improbability of life itself — is so profound that I think that arguments over terminology and semantics lacks substance and significance in the grand scheme of things.

The open-minded skeptic is governed by the recognition that all of our knowledge about the world is merely conjecture. It is not definitive. Therefore, this humble openness leaves room for the possibility that there may be a divine force to all life. This might even explain the still unexplainable phenomenon of consciousness. But for now, let us leave aside dogmatic claims about the origins of the universe and instead appreciate the extraordinary miracle that is life on Planet Earth.

Exploring nuanced crevices of truth in a world of complexity. Aspire to provide readers with better epistemic frameworks for intellectual and moral progression.

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