Science and religion

In Norwegian Aftenposten a debate is raging about a recurring theme. Under the title “Science opens for God” Moan and Saugstad argued that “It is a myth that Christianity cannot be reconciled with modern science. Perhaps it has never been more open for God’s existence than now”. In “Science does not open for God”, Pettersen, Mangerud and Hesselberg explained that “there is no empirically testable proof for God. Theories that are impossible to prove do not belong to science, claimed philosopher Karl Popper. This should also hold for God.”

I would like to point here at three books which, when combined, resolve for me this general question, whether science can be reconciled with religion.

The way in which they resolve this question opens for further evolution of both science and religion, and of our culture.

This way is different, I might even say ‘opposite’ from both mentioned positions.

“Opposite from both?!” I imagine you raise your eyebrow in disbelief. “How is that even possible, when the mentioned two views are already opposite from one another?”

I will answer by twisting George Orwell’s well-known dictum: They might be opposite, but they are not opposite enough. I will explain what I mean by this in Conclusion. For now, let me outline what has been said in the mentioned three classics.

Book 1: Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy

Huxley’s book The Perennial Philosophy will allow us to illuminate our theme from a specific angle:

If we put aside our differences of cosmology and worldview (whether we believe that God exists or not), is there in the experience or phenomenology of religion still something that we can all agree on, which might be interesting and relevant for us, people living in the 21st century, and for the culture we are creating together? Or let me put this in another way—if we should completely set aside religion because we consider God to be a delusion—would we then risk losing something essential? Could we be ‘throwing out the baby with the bath water’?

The Perennial Philosophy is a compendium of excerpts from sacred books and authored texts, emanating from a broad variety of historical periods and world traditions, organized around 27 themes including “Truth”, “Self-Knowledge”, “Good and Evil”, “Suffering”, “Spiritual Exercises”, “Contemplation, Action and Social Utility”, woven together by Huxley’s comments. Huxley’s motivation for creating this book was to point out that when men and women—many of them, across the world traditions, and in disparate historical periods—subjected themselves to a certain discipline and practice, they reached astonishingly similar experiences and insights; about each of those 27 themes.

Unlike his grandfather Thomas and his brother Julian who were famous biologists, Aldous Huxley was not a scientist but a famous novelist. Yet in the introduction to The Perennial Philosophy he explains why he considers his approach to be in essence scientific. While Huxley uses non-scientific language to express his point, I invite you to not look at his finger but where it’s pointing:

Nothing in our everyday experience gives us any reason for supposing that water is made up of hydrogen and oxygen; and yet when we subject water to certain rather drastic treatments, the nature of its constituent elements becomes manifest. Similarly, nothing in our everyday experience gives us much reason for supposing that the mind of the average sensual man has, as one of its constituents, something resembling, or identical with, the Reality substantial to the manifold world; and yet, when that mind is subjected to certain rather drastic treatments, the divine element, of which it is in part at least composed, becomes manifest, not only to the mind itself, but also, by its reflection in external behaviour, to other minds. It is only by making physical experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of matter and its potentialities. And it is only by making psychological and moral experiments that we can discover the intimate nature of mind and its potentialities. In the ordinary circumstances of average sensual life these potentialities of the mind remain latent and unmanifested. If we would realize them, we must fulfil certain conditions and obey certain rules, which experience has shown empirically to be valid.

The rest of the book provides a wealth of instances where the results of those “psychological and moral experiments” are in fine agreement, of which I will here only give a few taste bits. Huxley provides the following quotations under the title “Charity” (a contemporary alternative could be ‘unconditional love’). Huxley introduces his theme by quoting the 13th century Persian Sufi poet Rumi: charity, or love, is both a compass pointing at the destination, and a reward one receives by reaching it:

The astrolabe of the mysteries of God is love.

Jalal-uddin Rumi

He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.

John iv

Love is infallible; it has no errors, for all errors are the want of love.

William Law

We make an idol of truth itself; for truth apart from charity is not God, but his image and idol, which we must neither love nor worship.

Pascal

Love seeks no cause beyond itself and no fruit ; it is its own fruit, its own enjoyment. I love because I love; I love in order that I may love—- Of all the motions and affections of the soul, love is the only one by means of which the creature, though not on equal terms, is able to treat with the Creator and to give back something resembling what has been given to it. … When God loves, He only desires to be loved, knowing that love will render all those who love Him happy.

St. Bernard

Those who speak ill of me are really my good friends.
When, being slandered, I cherish neither enmity nor preference,
There grows within me the power of love and humility,
which is born of the Unborn.

Kung-chia Ta-shih

Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow, and to love Him as they love their cow for the milk and cheese and profit it brings them. This is how it is with people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God, when they love Him for their own advantage. Indeed, I tell you the truth, any object you have in your mind, however good, will be a barrier between you and the inmost Truth.

Eckhart

A beggar, Lord, I ask of Thee
More than a thousand kings could ask.
Each one wants something, which he asks of Thee.
I come to ask Thee to give me Thyself.

Ansari of Herat

I will have nothing to do with a love which would be for God or in God. This is a love which pure love cannot abide; for pure love is God Himself.

St. Catherine of Genoa

As a mother, even at the risk of her own life, protects her son, her only son, so let there be good will without measure between all beings. Let good will without measure prevail in the whole world, above, below, around, unstinted, unmixed with any feeling of differing or opposing interests. If a man remain steadfastly in this state of mind all the time he is awake, then is come to pass the saying, ‘Even in this world holiness has been found.’

Metta Sutta

Learn to look with an equal eye upon all beings, seeing the one Self in all.

Srimad Bhagavatam

The sect of lovers is distinct from all others;
Lovers have a religion and a faith all their own.

Jalal-uddin Rumi

Temperance is love surrendering itself wholly to Him who is its object; courage is love bearing all things gladly for the sake of Him who is its object; justice is love serving only Him who is its object, and therefore rightly ruling; prudence is love making wise distinctions between what hinders and what helps itself.

St. Augustine

Turn the man loose who has found the living Guide within him, and then let him neglect the outward if he can! Just as you would say to a man who loves his wife with all tenderness, “You are at liberty to beat her, hurt her or kill her, if you want to.”

John Everard

Book 2: Berger and Luckmann,  The Social Construction of Reality

“Wait a minute”, I imagine you object, “What you are talking about is not at all religion. Religion—as we are using this word—is a belief system, a worldview; and our discussion is about whether that worldview is compatible with the worldview of science.”

This second book will explain why I chose this less common angle of looking at our theme.

The Social Construction of Reality is a sociology classic. As the title suggests, the authors study, and theorize, the way in which ‘reality’ tends to be ‘constructed’, across historical periods and cultures. But isn’t reality by definition real, i.e. not constructed? In Introduction, the authors are careful to leave the questions about the existence and nature of ‘real reality’ to professional philosophers. Their task, as sociologists, is to simply observe the related social processes across cultures and notice and explain their shared traits.

One of those shared traits, which a sociologist cannot fail to notice, is that human societies, both historical and present, tended to develop their own versions of reality. And that those realities compose an astonishing variety.

Berger and Luckmann explain how through socialization (upbringing, education, and innumerable confirmations or discouragements by ‘significant others’) a social human being ends up accepting, and also perceiving its culture’s reality as the reality.

Two points from this book will be especially relevant to our theme.

The first is that the ‘reality’ Berger and Luckmann are talking about is not only a specific worldview, but also a specific social organization, i.e. a social reality. Indeed those two ‘realities’—our worldview, and our social organization—tend to be instilled in us through a single social process.

The second point is about the way in which those two realities tend to evolve together. I find this point so central to our theme that I now invite you to re-discover it yourself, by following Berger and Luckmann through a few steps of their argumentation.

On page 134, under the title “Social Organization of Universe-Maintenance” the authors explain how some specific, practically useful knowledge (such as the knowledge about the nature and the results of what Huxley called “psychological and moral experiments”, which is the substance of “perennial philosophy”) may morph into a theory about the nature and the origin of the universe (for ex. of the kind commonly associated with religion), and even about the nature of knowledge as such:

Because they are historical products of human activity, all socially constructed universes change, and the change is brought about by the concrete actions of human beings. […] As we have seen, the specialization of knowledge and the concomitant organization of personnel for the administration of the specialized bodies of knowledge develop as a result of the division of labor. […] As more complex forms of knowledge emerge and an economic surplus is built up, experts devote themselves full-time to the subjects of their expertise, which, with the development of conceptual machineries, may become increasingly removed from the pragmatic necessities of everyday life. Experts in these rarefied bodies of knowledge lay claim to a novel status. They are not only experts in this or that sector of the societal stock of knowledge, they claim ultimate jurisdiction over that stock of knowledge in its totality. They are, literally, universal experts. This does not mean that they claim to know everything, but rather that they claim to know the ultimate significance of what everybody knows and does. Other men may continue to stake out particular sectors of reality, but they claim expertise in the ultimate definitions of reality as such.

This theory about the nature of reality, then, becomes an instrument par excellence for legitimizing the given social reality:

Habitualization and institutionalization in themselves limit the flexibility of human actions. Institutions tend to persist unless they become ‘problematic’. Ultimate legitimations inevitably strengthen this tendency. The more abstract the legitimations are, the less likely they are to be modified in accordance with changing pragmatic exigencies. If there is a tendency to go on as before anyway, the tendency is obviously strengthened by having excellent reasons for doing so. This means that institutions may persist even when, to an outside observer, they have lost their original functionality or practicality. One does certain things not because they work, but because they are right – right, that is, in terms of the ultimate definitions of reality promulgated by the universal experts.

Since those abstract theories cannot be confirmed or denied, they tend to ‘cement’ the social order they appear to legitimize:

Traditional definitions of reality inhibit social change. Conversely, breakdown in the taken-for-granted acceptance of the monopoly accelerates social change. It should not surprise us, then, that a profound affinity exists between those with an interest in maintaining established power positions and the personnel administering monopolistic traditions of universe-maintenance. In other words, conservative political forces tend to support the monopolistic claims of the universal experts, whose monopolistic organizations in turn tend to be politically conservative. Historically, of course, most of these monopolies have been religious. It is thus possible to say that Churches, understood as monopolistic combinations of full-time experts in a religious definition of reality, are inherently conservative once they have succeeded in establishing their monopoly in a given society. Conversely, ruling groups with a stake in the maintenance of the political status quo are inherently churchly in their religious orientation and, by the same token, suspicious of all innovations in the religious tradition.

You will now probably understand why I am reluctant to consider science and religion as “traditions of universe-maintenance”, and to try to reconcile them on that ground, even if that may be the common understanding of science and religion, and the conventional approach to our theme. I indeed consider this “universe-maintenance” aspect of science and religion to be not their essence, but their degeneration.

This stance is further confirmed by my observation that the great creative minds whose names are associated with the advances and even with the very ideas of science and religion, tended to represent similar views. I like to quote the following Einstein’s elegant explanation (from Einstein and Infeld, “The Evolution of Physics”) why a scientist cannot claim that his theories correspond to reality:

Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world. In our endeavor to understand reality we are somewhat like a man trying to understand the mechanism of a closed watch. He sees the face and the moving hands, even hears its ticking, but he has no way of opening the case. If he is ingenious he may form some picture of a mechanism which could be responsible for all the things he observes, but he may never be quite sure his picture is the only one which could explain his observations. He will never be able to compare his picture with the real mechanism and he cannot even imagine the possibility or the meaning of such a comparison.

Richard Feynman’s position (stated in “The Character of Physical Law”) is similar:

What is necessary ‘for the very existence of science’, and what the characteristics of nature are, are not to be determined by pompous preconditions, they are determined always by the material with which we work, bu nature herself. We look, and we see what we find, and we cannot say ahead of time successfully what it is going to look like. The most reasonable possibilities often turn out not to be the situation. […] In fact it is necessary for the very existence of science that minds exist which do not allow that nature must satisfy some preconceived conditions […].

Similarly, the creative protagonists of the perennial philosophy tended to steer clear of conventional creed and worldview battles. Christ, as portreyed in the New Testament, said remarkably little about the origins of the universe or about sin and punishment. But he did leave us this phenomenological definition:

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.

John 4:16

And Rumi (in Divan, Reynold Nicholson’s translation) was even more explicit:

What is to be done, O Moslems? for I do not recognise myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Gabr, nor Moslem.
I am not of the East, or  of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of this world, nor of the next, nor of Paradise nor of Hell;[…]
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
‘Tis neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.
I have put duality away, I have seen that the two worlds are one;
One I seek, One I know, One I see, One I call.

Book 3: Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy

If you are passionate about the atheistic scientific worldview, you might now confront me with your strongest argument: “What are you talking about?” I imagine you might say. “The whole point about science is that its worldview is falsifiable and empirically verifiable. The scientific reality picture is not just another social construction. It is objectively true!”

This third book will provide an answer.

In Physics and Philosophy, Werner Heisenberg (Nobel Laureate, one of the progenitors of modern physics) described how through the successes of Newton and other great scientists that followed, a certain worldview and the corresponding (mechanistic-causal) way of explaining phenomena and legitimizing facts rose to prominence. But then in the 20th century something interesting happened: The worldview of the 19th century science allowed us to construct a certain experimental machinery, which when applied to small quanta of matter gave results that contradicted that worldview. The overall situation ended up having the structure of logical reductio ad absurdum which, according to the same worldview, is a legitimate way of proving things false. Heisenberg concluded:

In this way, finally, the nineteenth century developed an extremely rigid frame for natural science which formed not only science but also the general outlook of great masses of people. This frame was supported by the fundamental concepts of classical physics, space, time, matter and causality; the concept of reality applied to the things or events that we could perceive by our senses or that could be observed by means of the refined tools that technical science had provided. Matter was the primary reality. The progress of science was pictured as a crusade of conquest into the material world. Utility was the watchword of the time.

On the other hand, this frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concepts of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world; and when one studied the properties of this mirror in the science of psychology, the scientists were always tempted — if I may carry the comparison further — to pay more attention to its mechanical than to its optical properties. Even there one tried to apply the concepts of classical physics, primarily that of causality. In the same way life was to be explained as a physical and chemical process, governed by natural laws, completely determined by causality. Darwin’s concept of evolution provided ample evidence for this interpretation. It was especially difficult to find in this framework room for those parts of reality that had been the object of the traditional religion and seemed now more or less only imaginary. Therefore, in those European countries in which one was wont to follow the ideas up to their extreme consequences, an open hostility of science toward religion developed, and even in the other countries there was an increasing tendency toward indifference toward such questions; only the ethical values of the Christian religion were excepted from this trend, at least for the time being. Confidence in the scientific method and in rational thinking replaced all other safeguards of the human mind.

Coming back now to the contributions of modern physics, one may say that the most important change brought about by its results consists in the dissolution of this rigid frame of concepts of the nineteenth century [the emphasis is mine]. Of course many attempts had been made before to get away from this rigid frame which seemed obviously too narrow for an understanding of the essential parts of reality. But it had not been possible to see what could be wrong with the fundamental concepts like matter, space, time and causality that had been so extremely successful in the history of science. Only experimental research itself, carried out with all the refined equipment that technical science could offer, and its mathematical interpretation, provided the basis for a critical analysis — or, one may say, enforced the critical analysis — of these concepts, and finally resulted in the dissolution of the rigid frame.

So ‘the scientific worldview’ on which a passionate atheist might base his attitude has been falsified!

That worldview has subsequently retained its ‘scientific’ status in our culture for another half-century (Physics and Philosophy was published in 1958), in spite of repeated admonitions by scientists. (In 2005, for instance, the Potsdam Manifesto, co-written by Heisenberg’s ‘heir’ Hans-Peter Dürr, echod the message of Einstein-Russell Manifesto: “We must learn to think in a new way!”)

Conclusion

“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, reads the absurd dictum in Orwell’s Animal Farm. The Animal Farm describes a revolution on a farm, where the animals ousted the humans and undertook to run the farm themselves. But then the pigs began to take power and behave as the humans used to. The original natural slogan “all animals are equal” morphed into the absurd epigram of the pigs regime.

By creating this parable, Orwell of course pointed to a pattern that our human revolutions tend to follow: Once in power, some of the revolutionaries step into the role of the ousted elite, and begin to act as they did; and the original progressive ideas morph accordingly.

Religion is notorious for the “we know all about the world  because it’s written in our Book” attitude. Scientists had to wage a hard battle against this attitude, for the scientific revolution to prevail.

But could  from the ranks of science emerge a new class and—contrary to the original spirit of science—manifest some of that same attitude? Could even science inhibit progress?

Our discussion suggests a positive answer.

I would like to submit as conclusion that the root cause of the social ills that Richard Dawkins and so many among us associate with religion is not at all religion as such, but a widely shared human tendency. Kurt Vonnegut described it as follows:

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

There is of course nothing wrong about us wanting to understand—this distinguishing trait of our species has accelerated our evolution. Our problems begin when we tell ourselves that we have understood, that we have found the conclusive reason why the things are the way they are, a universal theory—which then hinders us from looking into the experiences and ideas that fail to conform to that theory; and from evolving further.

As Berger and Luckmann showed us,  universal theories have historically proven to be excellent means of inhibiting social change. We cannot fail to observe that the crude universal theory of a mechanical universe tends to support the crude dynamics of ‘social Darwinism’, which now marks our political, economic and even academic order.

Should we then not stop scapegoating religion? Should we not rather look squarely into this problematic inclination of ours, and confront it directly?

So here is what I propose: Instead of continuing to conceive science and religion as institutions for “universe-maintenance”, i.e. instead of keeping them in the service of this problematic tendency, and then also in contest with one another over whose universal theory is the right one, let us reconcile science and religion by making a new declaration of independence: Let us declare science and religion independent of their worldviews!

(You may now easily notice that this proposal is opposite from the two views mentioned in the opening paragraph, which both discuss whether the worldviews of science and religion can be reconciled.)

(You may now also recall that this—liberating information and knowledge work from their dependence on the universal theory, conceiving them instead as vital components of our ‘social organism’, and by adjusting them to this role enabling and enhancing our social and cultural evolution— is the theme of this blog.)

Science, when liberated by this declaration, will of course continue to evolve the worldviews of its disciplines—which has been the driving force behind the accelerated development of our civilization. But science will no longer be confined in that way. The larger, emancipated science will be free to focus on any issue that may require creative attention. Worldview-independent science will be free to, and even feel obliged to produce those new kinds of information and knowledge that might be necessary for the future development of our civilization—notably for minimizing the risks that have resulted from the misbalanced nature of its past development. What might be those new kinds of information? In what ways will they be different? In what ways will they make a difference? These question might well be the ones that the liberated science will explore first.

I will here mention only one theme that the new science might take up, the one that pertains to our theme at hand—religion.

While having little interest in studying religions as worldviews, the new science will carefully explore the experience of the world religions, to see whether it may point at developmental possibilities we have hitherto been neglecting—perhaps in a similar way as Huxley did in “The Perennial Philosophy.” Huxley passed us the ball but we didn’t catch it, we didn’t continue playing. (Was this because the experiences he was pointing at did not fit into our worldview? Was it because the study he was proposing could not be done within the academic practices by which this worldview is maintained?) I imagine the new science developing its study of religion within a more general interest in guidelines to wellbeing, which would support an informed pursuit of happiness. How can our happiness grow beyond what is familiar, beyond what we ourselves have experienced? Such a study might complement, and perhaps eventually replace the half-trillion-dollars-a-year global advertising industry, to which we have all but abandoned this pivotal part of our reality construction.

Religion, when declared independent from associated worldviews, will still be careful to preserve the heritage and the vitality of religious traditions. Science, even when fully successful in mapping the terrain of human potentialities, can never replace religion. Science at its best can only give us a correct map, which we may use to choose our destinations; religion will still be needed to take us to some of them. Even in its conventional form, religion is not only, and not even primarily a belief system; religion is also the ritual, the architecture, the music and the art, and everything else that may serve to bring us closer to religious experience. Not the least, religion is also the people who have been touched and inspired and changed by that experience. In the ecology of our civilization, religious traditions may contain memes that are vital to our further evolution.

But this renewed religion will not be confined to its habitual forms. On the contrary, once the liberated science and religion have manifested their alternative, it will become manifest that surprisingly many of the proponents of ‘religious orthodoxy’ have surprisingly little understanding of the messages and the lived experiences of the saints and prophets who originated their religions. Division and conflict, now closely associated with religion, will be seen as incompatible with religion.

Could liberated religion also help us develop liberated science? It may be interesting here to observe that while professional athletes practice a variety of training methods and lifestyle regimes to improve their performance, the scientific profession does little to improve its performers. Can creativity be developed? Will some of the techniques that were instrumental in ‘perennial philosophy’ prove useful?

Our culture (or society, or civilization), now kept in check by various fixed realities, conceptual and institutional, will also become free to evolve further. The moment could not be better chosen. Arne Næss, Norway’s public philosopher, has been credited for the idea of “deep ecology”, according to which the preservation of life is now conditioned upon a change in our very attitude towards life. And in The Human Quality, Aurelio Peccei—the founder and the first President of The Club of Rome—declared, based on a decade of this international think tank’s research into the future prospects of mankind:

Let me recapitulate what seems to me the crucial question at this point of the human venture. Man has acquired such decisive power that his future depends essentially on how he will use it. However, the business of human life has become so complicated that he is culturally unprepared even to understand his new position clearly. As a consequence, his current predicament is not only worsening but, with the accelerated tempo of events, may become decidedly catastrophic in a not too distant future. The downward trend of human fortunes can be countered and reversed only by the advent of a new humanism essentially based on and aiming at man’s cultural development, that is, a substantial improvement in human quality throughout the world.

Freed from the shackles of fixed worldviews, and put into the service of our creative evolution, science and religion will provide us exactly what is needed.

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