Tag Archives: science and religion

The Truth about Elves

We are nothing if not certain. We know that there are no such things as intelligent non-human entities anywhere in the natural realm. We may reluctantly nod toward some animal intelligence, but that’s as far as the head inclines. Humans are the acknowledged and absolute top of the chain of command. Until you try to build a road in Iceland.

The story of how the road crews were called to a halt because of fear of infringing on elf territory hit the internet months ago. An article in the BBC News recently revised the scene. Emma Jane Kirby traveled to Iceland to see just how seriously this was being taken. I, for one, am glad that mythology survives on the surface in at least a few small places in the world. According to Kirby, surveys suggest about half of all rational adults in Iceland at least hold open the possibility that Huldufolk exist. The Huldufolk, or “hidden folk” are not diminutive, but human-sized and invisible. Who’s to say that invisible people don’t exist? Show me.

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Rationalists are quick to jump out with the accusation that witch trials and other superstition will soon follow should we allow that perhaps the angelic, demonic, or folkloristic beings exist. Of course, it was the rational authorities of the day—often the church—that made those trials possible. Without religion, though, we never would have had science. I don’t think the invisible beings had anything to do with it. Human, all too human, hatred was the real culprit. Fear can lead even the most well-adjusted to the precipice on a dark and stormy night (with apologies to Edward Bulwer-Lytton). People are inclined to mythology to give meaning to a world that, no matter whether scientifically described or not, must make sense to us. Sometimes the elves seem to be the most likely explanation.

The only thing really lost by catering to the belief in elves is money. It might take a little more time and a bit more effort, and empty the coffers just a bit more, but in the end both elves and humans are happier. This worldview has a sense of wonder that a money-padded saunter through Manhattan simply lacks. When faced with the choice between mean money or disgruntled elves, I know the path I would rather take.

Science Fiction Double Feature

Two news stories last week—one from the Associated Press and one from the Chronicle of Higher Education—hit upon a common theme: scientific illiteracy. Both articles presented scientists who felt that if they could just reach the (mostly) American public with easily digested facts, then belief in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming would suddenly make sense to everyone. It may not be my place to say, as I’m not a scientist, but I believe they’re wrong. Don’t misunderstand. I do believe in the Big Bang, evolution, and global warming. In fact, I spent part of last week flagellating myself (metaphorically) for not posting something appropriate on Earth Day. I worry a lot about global warming and what we do to our only planet. What I mean is, these scientists don’t understand religion. People don’t willfully reject the facts. That takes religion.

One of the reasons that I continue my daily efforts on this blog is that our educated elite constantly refuse to acknowledge the blue whale in the room. People are naturally religious. Some grow out of it, some are educated out of it. For most, however, the price to do so is far too high. Science offers little to take the place of faith. For all of its innuendo, the Big Bang tends to leave most of us cold. I don’t support religions spreading ignorance, but even the Bible recognized that it is useless to say to a poor person, “stay warm and well fed” if you don’t offer a blanket and some food as well. It’s chilly in an infinite, yet expanding universe. Why don’t scientist understand that if you give a jacket, maybe people might actually warm up and listen?

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Religion, however we define it, is a coping mechanism. Even many atheist biologists admit that it has an evolutionary utility, embarrassing as that may be. Evolutionary scientists also tell us that we don’t evolve according to plan. Nature (de-personified, of course) opportunistically uses what’s at hand to help creatures survive. Instead of trying to understand religion, many in the hard sciences think that speaking loudly in single-syllable words will convince those who’ve found meaning in evolution’s solution of religion that somehow evolution was wrong. The worst thing we can do is to waste more money trying to understand religion! I hear it’s very cold in outer space. Still, things seem to be warming up down here. For those who can’t evolve gills, it’s time to learn to swim.

Making Sense

Science is more than meets the eye. Even since I was a child I’ve tried to follow what I can of science without a real microscope or telescope and a doctorate in some incomprehensible subject like chemistry. I guess that’s why I’m a fan of popular science—the kind that is written so a layperson might understand, or at least pretend to. Indeed, one of the complaints from scientists and others alike is that science has become so complex that only a specialist can really understand. I suspect that’s one reason religion continues to thrive; anybody can be an expert in religion, even a scientist. Nevertheless, science is based on empirical observation, now with instruments fine tuned to receive data better than human senses. So I sometimes watch Through the Wormhole to find out what is happening in the realm of pure knowledge. Although simplified to the digestibility level of the laity, Through the Wormhole tries to stay on base with interviews with mainstream scientists who are working at the cutting edge of what’s out there. I recently watched the episode entitled “Is There a Sixth Sense?”

I have no way of knowing what scientists think of such things, but I was glad to see the everyday experience of normal people addressed in this particular episode. Who hasn’t felt that weird pre-cognition from time-to-time, or felt like they were being stared at only to learn that they were? These might be the spooky effects at a distance that so unnerved Einstein, but they are part of human experience. We all go through it, but mainstream science comes up with a convoluted scheme whereby our brains project what actually happened back in memory before it happened so that it just seems like we knew something was about to transpire. Of they point to false positives—how many times did we think something was about to happen and it didn’t? We just don’t remember those. Still, this particular show brings together mainstream physicists and theorists usually considered outsiders, such as Dean Radin and Rupert Sheldrake (strangely omitted from the IMDB cast list). Several smart people, it seems, wonder if we are really all connected.

Mainstream science has grown terrified of metaphysics. The suggestion that anything might be remotely like the world of religion is frightening to those who believe we just need more precise calipers and higher resolution imagery to explain an entirely physical universe. This little universe we carry around in our skulls, however, is attuned to what we might just have to call the “spiritual” or some such moniker, just to differentiate it from the particles that we are told make up everything. Or is it strings? Don’t ask me; I couldn’t tell an up quark from a down quark. Interestingly, one is even called a “charm.” And then there’s the God particle, the Higgs’ boson that briefly reminded the world that Edinburgh is a top-rate university, although, as we all know, there’s no place like Harvard. For the rest of us, however, there’s the everyday business of work to face. And if I try to read a blog while on the clock, I definitely have a sense of being stared at, even when I’m alone in here.

One of the last fearless scientists

One of the last fearless scientists

Strange Orthodoxies

SeriouslyStrangeI had already read three of his books before I called on Jeffrey Kripal. Reading his work created a strange longing in me, as if I had been missing something I once might’ve had, but had lost on my way to academia. Kripal is a fearless writer and a profoundly kind man. He gave me a copy of his edited collection, Seriously Strange: Thinking Anew about Psychical Experiences, (co-edited by Sudhir Kakar, part of the Boundaries of Consciousness series). Like myself, Dr. Kripal had come to the conclusion that a number of apparently disparate human experiences actually belong to the same overarching class. Religion shares not a little ground with monstrosity, heroes, and the paranormal. With the exception of religion (generally) the other phenomena are classed as puerile and not worthy of consideration beyond their juvenile appeal. No real scholar would bother with them.

The orthodoxy of knowledge is a funny thing. I have been fascinated by what science teaches us about the universe since I was I child. Some of it is seriously strange as well. I always thought that science was observing the world closely and drawing logical inferences. Somewhere along the line, science became theory driven—I suspect it was some time after Darwin; and even Freud recognized the draw of the uncanny and how it related to numinous regions of human experience. In any case, by the time I was able to comprehend (partially) the fantastically complex system that science had built up I found a universe teeming with black holes that nobody had ever seen, and sub-atomic particles that behaved very naughtily, not being consistent with what we’d expect. Indeed, uncertainty abounded. Uncertainty is crucial to the humility which is the only true adjunct to human knowledge. We can only know enough to say we wish we knew more.

In the last few decades, however, science has adopted a magisterium like that of the medieval Catholic Church. That realm of unchallenged knowledge ignores the anomalous and declares that everything is reducible to material. Ironically, it seems, material is reducible to energy, and energy is less well tamed. Our understanding of our universe is still in its infancy. We haven’t even learned to walk yet. From the beginning, however, we have been religious and even science suggests that it may be biologically beneficial. So Seriously Strange takes some of the borderlands of mainstream science and looks closely at them. Some of the assertions are modest, and nobody claims to prove anything here. The essays will, however, instill a sense of much needed wonder into a Weltanschauung that increasingly has no space for simply being human.

Ham on Nye

Bill Nye, the Science Guy, comprised a good part of my thirties. My daughter was young and we were living in a religious environment sometimes openly hostile to science. Nye is funny and fastidious, and completely devoted to the empirical worldview. His videos (yes, it was that long ago) were fairly inexpensive in VHS format, and even as parents we learned a thing or two. When Bill Nye came to the New Jersey Green initiative conference (I don’t recall what it was called) we were in the audience to see him live. It was rather like an epiphany. Despite his wit and charm, many of his colleagues are now advising him that he’s made a wrong turn. According to NBC, he is set to debate Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis in a no-win debate, that of creation versus evolution. Some of the top lights of science have been bloodied by lower profile conflicts because—and this is the crucial point—religion and science do not agree on basic ground rules. It’s a schoolyard scrap, and those who try to adhere to laws of reason are often ill equipped.

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The debate isn’t really over the question of how we got here. The real prize is power. Creationists cannot win on purely scientific grounds; anyone who’s tried to read Henry Morris’s books knows that you can’t get very far without a curious hand raking your head. The science is flawed but the conviction is solid. Truth, the creationists know, is not open for debate. His scientific colleagues fear for the intrepid science guy, noting that this is just another instance to give creationism faux credibility in what is really a public relations scam. Ham’s creationist museum has dinosaurs on the ark, which, in an unrelated story on NBC, is drawing righteous ire from the self-same Ham. (I’ve posted on the round ark before, and likely will again.)

If I understand the first article correctly, the debate will be taking place tonight. If I understand science at all, the world will continue to evolve tomorrow. Creationism has a curious relationship to the world, viewing it through a Bible-shaped lens. A close look at the Bible reveals that it does not support the creationist viewpoint in any literal way. Too many dragons and contradictions make implausible any but a heavily harmonized version of Genesis 1. Biblical scholars, however, are among the worst of sinners, according to the creationist camp. We might be the very ones exposing their children to Bill Nye and other questionable truths such as television and electricity that don’t even exist in the Bible. I’ve got my fingers crossed for Bill Nye, but then, superstition has nothing to do with it.

Who Loves You?

DarwinLovesYouWonder is too easily lost in a reductionistic world. Even when we get to the level of quantum mechanics we’re told, “it’s just physics.” How depressing. Such ideas seem to have been in the mind of George Levine as he wrote Darwin Loves You: Natural Selection and the Re-Enchantment of the World. Don’t get me wrong, Levine does not back away from the secular starkness of biology. What he does, however, is ask whether or not evolution by natural selection shouldn’t create a kind of secular enchantment. Almost from page one Levine has to address religion, the tyrannosaurus in the room. Religion, for all its shortcomings, has provided people with a sense of purpose, even enchantment, from days long before any temples or priests existed. The materialist response of “buck up, there’s nothing more than biology going on here,” has proved to be of little consolation to the vast majority of people on the planet. One of the reasons, and I speak only for myself here, is that it just doesn’t feel true.

Truth is a slippery concept. In origin the word seems to derive from something like “to have good faith.” In terms of factuality it also has the meaning of conforming to reality. Reality, however, is equally perilous when it comes to authoritative definitions. Reality means nothing if it is not perceived. Perception may actually bring something to the table, if particle physics are to be believed. Empirical method is pragmatic—I believe that every time I grudgingly climb aboard an airplane, or turn on a computer. At the same time I sense that there may be more to it than that. No matter how much science I read, that perception simply won’t go away. The professors of materialism have learned to quash that still, small voice. The hollow feeling with which it leaves me, however, may be significant.

Evolution and religion are inextricably interwoven. Religion, although poorly defined, has to do with finding meaning in a world that is often harsh and cruel. No doubt such feelings evolved, and some of our animal kin may share them with us. When molecules break down into atoms, they generally lose the characteristics of the molecule. We now know that we can keep breaking even the invisible apart until we’re left with only theory as to what might be below. This may be true. At the same time, the wonder with which we might stand before a cyclotron or a little robot rolling around the surface of Mars, the question of truth emerges like a rock that wasn’t there just a few days before. A gnawing sense that we don’t have the full picture. A sense that no matter how far we tear apart, the total will always be far more than the sum of parts. Levine is right; evolution can induce wonder. And truth, at its very heart, is a matter of faith.

Material Goods

Few ideas are as insidious as the reductionistic materialism touted by some of the New Atheists. Atheism and materialism need not walk down the same garden path, but the idea that we are determined by the thoughtless playing out of particle physics can only be achieved by sweeping the vast majority of human experience off the table to attempt a sterile analysis that applies, it seems, only in a vacuum. I often ponder this dilemma since those who think through the implications seriously soon find themselves locked out of the room. Materialists want nothing to do with those who challenge a system that is a little too neat, while ardent believers in religion have trouble letting go of what are obviously the mythological underpinnings of belief structures. The rest of us, trying to be intellectually honest, know that strange things happen and that materialism’s strong arm is powerless to uphold a system that is simplistic.

Indeed, scientists have moved away from utility as the sole criterion for explaining the universe. Beauty, or elegance, is frequently considered to be key to a Grand Unified Theory. It may be a gut-level reaction, but it speaks to something deeply human; we need to make sense of our world. We can do that, however, only if we’re willing to be honest. I’m not sure we can be honest without acknowledging that our minds range far beyond the sum of all the electro-chemical activity within an individual brain. If they didn’t, religion, for one, just couldn’t survive. Beauty, as a qualifier, is said to be in the eye of the beholder. Philosophers, however, maintain that aesthetics, the study of beauty, constitutes a branch of philosophy that requires hard thinking and specialized training. Beauty is a driving force for many aspects of life. Otherwise we wouldn’t hire architects to design since buildings on university campuses. A pile of bricks sufficiently mortared will do.

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The issue is trenchant because a generation is growing up with this idea firmly in place. Scientific studies, if scientists are to be believed, demonstrate that a strict materialism erodes empathy, the sense that what others experience matters. The logical conclusion to a reductionistic world is a kind of cold solipsism where the only spark of consciousness that matters is the one that takes place inside this head. All the rest are just formulas and equations. And yet, don’t even materialists enjoy a good novel, movie, or fine meal? The world is a complex place, and we haven’t even taken the first adult steps to begin exploring the rest of the universe with the five basic senses we acknowledge. Even down here, however, there is much that reductionistic materialism can’t explain. I wouldn’t stick a god in that gap, but a dose of humble wonder, I suggest, wouldn’t hurt.