Friday, December 26, 2008

On Paradigms

Enough already with Evolution vs Scripture!

Is that really all there is to say about the two great creative human endeavors of Science and Spiritual Endeavor? Does that debate really exhaust all there is to say about these domains where so much effort and time have been poured?

I have no problem with people like Dawkins and company taking people's intolerance to task. I too am intolerant of the intolerant. But there simply is too much at stake not to take the long view and as an astrophysicist the long view is what I was trained for. In that sense the phenomena of "Religion" stretches far, far back into its roots in Mythology, a word which must been taken in its positive sense of "sacred narratives. Taken in this way the positive roots of Science can be found in Myth as well.

Its only been 50,000 years since the awakened encounter between human self-consciousness and the world began in earnest (a bare instant in cosmic time) so the long view here is the only one which makes sense.

Paradigm change in science comes not when some long standing paradox is resolved but when it is transcended. For decades at the end of the 19th century people fretted about the relativity of the speed of light. Whole books worth of results on the luminiferous aether and its properties were worked out. Einstein did not solve this problem he simply ignored it. Instead of figuring out how the speed of light would change in different moving frames of reference he simply said "It doesn't" and followed the consequences of that radical assumption.

When it comes to Science and Spiritual Endeavor I propose something similar. The tired debate about some particular interpretation of some particular scripture, the narrow debate about some particular idea of a particular form deity, is old and tired and backward looking. We have become a global species folks, a global community with a view that stretches back to the dim past and forward to an infinite future. Time to get inclusive.

There have been, are, and will be many ways in which human beings interpret their encounter with that aspect of experience they feel as "sacred". That is the direction to face now. That is the third alternative rising above battles about God vs Physics. I am certainly a-theistic in that, like my boy Einstein, a personal supernatural deity who always fails to choose the Mets as the world series champs (dang!) does not resonate with my experience, intuition or understanding. But "religion" does only refer to particular arguments about God and his/her/its' imagined powers. That is the long view. To dismiss that view because of the "popularity" of various fundamentalisms around the world is to miss the promise that perspective offers.

So I propose changing the question we ask and seeing where it leads us. The problem is not how does anyones scriptures, sutra's etc match with scientific results but instead how does the aspiration, born of lived experience, drive what is best in Science and Spiritual Aspiration. Perhaps this route taken with radical open-mindedness and radical scepticism - the hallmarks of true science and true spiritual longing - can lead us on a new path away from an antagonism that only serves the antagonists and teaches the rest of us absolutely nothing.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Not Your Fathers Science vs. Religion Debate

So my book is now beginning to make its way into the world and I am hearing some reaction already.

One argument I can anticipate is people saying "Oh god not another book on science and religion. I am soooooo tired of the topic."

I could not agree more. That was in fact the reason I wrote The Constant Fire in the first place. The traditional debate which pits christian scripture against the latest results of science be it evolutionary theory or cosmology is tired. There is nothing more there we can learn from since most of the people involved in the debate are simply talking past each other. What I set out to do was look beyond issues of God vs Physics and ask about Religion or better yet Human Spiritual Endeavor as a broad and very old phenomena and ask is there any other way of seeing what happens there in relation to what happens in science. My answer is a definitely YES. There are entirely other ways of seeing the science and religion debate which go beyond the tired confines of historically conditioned prejudices. The most important stepping off point however is to see that Religion can not simply be about whatever your parents handed you.

We live in a rather remarkable moment in history in which humanity is forced to see itself for what it is - a species as a whole with stewardship over the planet as a whole. If we want to argue about what happens in science and what happens in religion then we have to broaden our view to see the long history of the human encounter with what it experiences as sacred. If the debate is tied to some particular vision of deity of some particular subsect of a religion then there is unlikely to be much progress. The history of culture is such that the longing which gets defined as "spiritual" manifests in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it has an explicit creator and sometimes it does not. Better to go beyond particulars and look at the phenomena as a whole and where it connects with science.

That is why I looked to scholars like William James and Mircea Eliade and why I looked to domains of comparative mythology to gain a different perspective. While people may not agree with what I found there it is not, I hope, business as usual.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Honey I Scared the Kids

This week I had the unique privilege of giving the keynote address at Rochester's School of the Arts inductance ceremony for their honors society. SOTA is one of the city school district's best efforts in an otherwise pretty beleaguered system. Anyone who has ever been to the annual dance concert or senior jazz band knows what these kids are capable of.

The ceremony begins with the lighting of a candle as a symbolic flame of knowledge. I had some general notes on what I wanted to say but that little flame, flickering on the table at the front of the stage, got me thinking.

So I told them I had bad news and good news. I told them that the bad news was that the light sputtering there before them could go out. I told them it often had in the past. The I told them the good news was they were going to make sure that it wouldn't go out now.

They didn't look to happy about that. Who would?

Every generation gets a name these days. The baby boomers. Generation X, Y and Z. Now maybe we are all Generation O. Deciding on that label can be a kind of self-indulgent exercise in collective naval-gazing but for the kids coming up now it may be an exercise in facing reality. Unlike the boomers and their flirtation with rebellion and the Gen X tendency to existential whining, the kids coming up now are staring down into something real, palpable and unpleasant. The world we left them is falling apart. After a 50,000 year experiment in self-consciousness and culture, they face the unique possibility of watching a newly formed global civilization collapse.

Pinned between climate change, resource depletion and a population that is simply more than this little world can carry, the next generation will face problems which the last few could not have dreamed of. We are about to pass through a bottleneck in our history as a species. We may squeeze through and come out on the other side. We may make it having learned something deep and lasting about what it means to be embodied intelligences enmeshed in a planetary ecosystem. We may also, collectively, screw the pooch and watch our project of civilization laid to ruin.

No way to know before hand.

So if this generation gets a name it may be one they aren't really looking for: the heroic generation. They may need to be heroic simply because so much will be asked of them. They may need to find their heroism as they are forced to endure changes and challenges that tax their creativity, intelligence and resolve.

I told them all this. I didn't intent to scare them but it seems to me immoral to leave them in the dark. How else can we expect them to understand the value of all that is symbolized in the little candle at the head of the table. How else might they understand how delicate this whole enterprise called democracy and law and learning really is.

Scholarship. Knowledge, Culture. The Arts. Compassion. You just can't pull em apart

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Religulous - From Funny to Freefall

I saw the movie Religulous last week. I am a big fan of Bill Maher. His stuff after 9/11 was dead on - all those great war posters that never were: "When You Ride Alone You Ride with Bin Laden. " His absolute lack of apologies has always struck as honest if sometimes over the top.

Religulous is funny in ways that you would expect. Maher is of course not asking any really deep questions. He is out to show where the bias and blindness in religion lies and to no one's surprise he finds out without a whole lot of effort. His conclusion about the real danger of letting people who are waiting for the apocalypse run governments is however presented with real force.

The problem, as is often the case, is the debate is nothing but the poles each calling each other out. Maher is right about the real bias against people who dare to call themselves atheists but he fails to think very hard about why people are religious. For him its all about not wanting to think or to have a hand to hold or having a simple answer. There is no doubt that its pretty easy to find these kind of folk. But that still does not answer where the Martin Luther Kings and the Gandhi's come from. It does not address the beauty of Caravaggio's The Calling of St Matthew, the grace of Tibetan Buddhist statuary or the aspiration that drove Kepler's discovery of elliptical orbits for planetary motion. Religion has many functions and many of them are about social control. But to miss what William James speaks of as Religious Experience and dismiss it out of hand is like deciding that you can ignore those parts of physics that you don't like or agree with.

Maher's movie is about the dull, though well populated extreme. James talks about this - the kind of "man" who has "his religion … made for him by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to him by fixed forms by imitation, and retained by habit.” Much of what Maher shows is true but still he misses the deeper parts of what James saw - that people find a sense of the sacred in their lives and that they can do it within or without institutional religions. Those experiences are the root of what becomes religion and, I would argue, in different form becomes the aspiration for science. We would all do better if traced that root and then directed its energy towards our "better angels".

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Dawkins, Goodenough and God

I have been rereading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion again and it makes me sad. First off, I have enormous respect for the guy. I can’t speak for his science since I am a physicists and not a biologist but I am told he does good work. But as a science writer he is one of best. His eloquence and specificity in descriptions of biological processes as well as the process of science are a joy to read. Much of my (limited) understanding of evolutionary science has come from reading his books. But when it comes to religion as a broad human phenomenon Dawkins is, unfortunately myopic. I will probably be writing a lot on this subject in the months to come but Dawkin’s mistake is one many scientists make when they address issues relating to human spirituality – they can’t see past God. As a committed scientist I share the Dawkins' (and Einstein’s) difficulty with a personal God who intervenes when asked (sometimes) letting the Red Socks take the series one year and the Yankees the next (and the Mets of course never ever, ever. EVER!). I am no fan of supernatural explanations for the structure of the world. But to define away all that happens in people’s experience of religion as being defined solely and completely by theological definitions of a supernatural creator is to miss something so vast and so vital as to blind oneself to both its power and its potential.

Dawkins has this way of defining away anything or anyone which does fit his straw man definition of religion. Ursula Goodenough is a good example. Goodenough is a well respected biologist whose father was one of the pre-eminent scholars of religion of the last century. After years of “playing it straight” as a tenured scientist she describes her self as returning to her father’s questions about religion and the human sense of the sacred. In the years that followed she has written eloquently about how the narratives of science can act as gateways to this experience of a life’s’ sacred character. Her work is one example of a sensitive, sophisticated and nuanced attempt to place science and religious experience into a broader context. In Dawkins' book Goodenough gets a couple paragraphs which dismiss her efforts as being fundamentally irrelevant. I could only shake my head that such a smart guy could have such thick blinders on.

Last week I participated in a wonderful panel discussion at the National Association of Science Writers on getting science out of the lab. The panel, organized by the always delightful writer K.C. Cole, focused a lot on meeting people where they are when it comes to talking about science. Far too many people in the world come to meaning in their life through their experience of what they apprehend to be sacred to just tell them to get over it. It’s a huge, dangerous and ultimately misguided approach.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Beginnings are Dangerous Times

So this will be my first post under The Constant Fire which happens to be the title of my book. The blog, like the book, will be about science and religion. Actually, as I say in the book, I am not a big fan of the word religion in this context because it tends to point people towards the imperatives of institutions (scriptures, dogma, orthodoxies, real estate) rather than the experience of the world as sacred which is really what I am interested in. I like the term Human Spiritual Endeavor as a tag for what is, for me at least, where the interesting stuff in all this lives.

So as much as possible I will stay away from the old and rather boring debate about evolution and creationism. I am so very tired of watching people talk past each other on that one. I am a theoretical astrophysicist so for me the Theory of Evolution is no different than the Theory of Aerodynamics which I trust to keep the 5000 ton 737 I am flying home on in the air. Pope John Paul II had no problem with evolution and last i checked he was religious so why are we still locked up in this debate. Its time to move on.

Of course the organs of science can seem pretty blind to the full range of what happens in Religion too. Humanity has a 50,000 year history of encountering what might gentely be called "life's sacred character". That is a lot of thought and time an effort and it has not all been about beating the guy next to you over the head. All too often science as a cultural force seems to tell people that if they experience a spiritual dimension in their life they must just be too dumb or mushy headed to face up to "facts".

What a shame.

What is missing in the endless debates about evolution vs scripture and faith vs reason is elemental lived experience that people have, and have always had, of awe and wonder and reverence before the world. I argue that from these elemental experiences the impulse which becomes science or spiritual endeavor is born. It is all about the aspiration to know the true and the real which emerges from those experiences. Starting there will leads us in a very different direction.