On this July 4, Independence Day in the United States, let's remember that the founders of this country wanted its citizens to be free of religious tyranny.
So you can bet they wouldn't be happy with the fundamentalist excesses in the United States today. Most of our founding fathers were deists who believed that religious beliefs have to be founded on reason, not holy books.
To them, God is revealed in the laws of nature, not religious superstition. Science thus becomes more godly than religion, because the nature of the creator is revealed through (no big surprise) nature.
Ann Druyan, Carl Sagan's wife and collaborator, has written a nice essay about science, religion, wonder, awe, and her husband. She contrasts the ridiculous Christian fear of knowledge (Adam and Eve got punished for it) with the open-mindedness of science.
Our nation was founded on a heroic act of disobedience to a king who was presumed to rule by divine right. We created social and legal mechanisms to institutionalize the questioning of authority and the participation of every person in the decision-making process. It's the most original thing about us, our greatest contribution to global civilization.
Today, our not-exactly-elected officials try to make it seem as if questioning this ancient story [of Genesis] is wrong. . . . That the teaching of our evolving understanding of nature, which is a product of what we have been able to discover over generations, is somehow un-American or disrespectful of strongly held beliefs. As if we should not teach our children what we've learned about our origins, but rather we should continue to teach them this story which demonizes the best qualities of our founding fathers.
This makes no sense and it leads me to a question: Why do we separate the scientific, which is just a way of searching for truth, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe?
Science is nothing more than a never-ending search for truth. What could be more profoundly sacred than that? I'm sure most of what we all hold dearest and cherish most, believing at this very moment, will be revealed at some future time to be merely a product of our age and our history and our understanding of reality. So here's this process, this way, this mechanism for finding bits of reality. No single bit is sacred. But the search is.
Right on, Ms. Druyan. You echo the thoughts of New York Times science writer Natalie Angier, whose book ("The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science") I've just started reading.
I liked how Angier looks upon the question of whether the nature of the universe is objective or subjective. Many of the posts and comments on this Church of the Churchless blog address this perennial debate.
I'm much more inclined to an objective view of reality, because it is so self-evident. As I've noted before, the proof pops up every time we come to an intersection and find that people on the "green" side go and those on the "red" sign stop (with a few exceptions, which keep auto body repair shops in business).
But there's also an undeniable subjective side to human (and animal) consciousness. Some aspects of reality are ours alone, not capable of being shared with others as red and green traffic lights can. Emotions, for example.
Angier points us toward the unity that underlies both the objective and subjective sides of the universe. A coin has "heads" and "tails," but it is a single entity. To recognize only one side of the coin is to miss the entire picture that science tries to see.
Scientists accept, quite staunchly, that there is a reality capable of being understood, and understood in ways that can be shared with and agreed upon by others. We can call this "objective" reality if we like, as opposed to subjective reality, or opinion, or "whimsical set of predilections."
The contrast is deceptive, however, for it implies that the two are discrete entities with remarkably little in common. Objective reality is out there, other, impersonal, and "not me," while subjective reality is private, intimate, inimitable, and life as it is truly lived. Objective reality is cold and abstract; subjective reality is warm and Rockwell.
Science is effective because it bypasses such binaries in favor of what might be called empirical universalism, the rigorously outfitted and enormously fruitful premise that the objective reality of the universe comprises the subjective reality of every one of us. We are of the universe, and by studying the universe we ultimately turn the mirror on ourselves.
"Science is not describing a universe out there, and we're separate entities," said [physicist] Brian Greene. "We're part of that universe, we're made of the same stuff as that universe, of ingredients that behave according to the same laws as they do elsewhere in the universe."
That's beautiful. And deeply spiritual. There's only One, and we're part of it.
The "soul" of spirituality is a genuine sense of wonder and openness to mystery. People who cling to religious dogma and inerrant scriptures want certainty and answers, not a sense of wonder. Some scientists fall into the former category, while some religious practitioners fall into the latter. But by and large, a sense of wonder is written into the very method of science, and deliberately written OUT of the methods of organized religion.
Posted by: Brendan | July 05, 2007 at 06:15 PM
Yes there must be only ONE and WE are part of it....
Posted by: Sita | July 06, 2007 at 12:14 PM
A scientific and religious "Church of the Churchless" online survey:
-Do you feel you are helping yourself and others by blogging online? (0-100%)
-Do you feel addicted to blogging online? (0-100%)
-Has your life become more manageable because of blogging? (0-100%)
-Has your life become more unmanageable because of blogging? (0-100%)
-Does blogging make you feel joyful and happy? (0-100%)
-Does blogging make you feel unhappy and miserable? (0-100%)
-Does blogging give you peace? (0-100%)
-Does blogging make you miserable? (0-100%)
Thank you for your participation.
Posted by: Chris | July 06, 2007 at 04:00 PM
Yes, "the objective reality of the universe comprises the subjective reality of every one of us". It cannot be otherwise as objective reality cannot exist without the consciousness of the observer. I mean how could subjectivity get out of itself to view objectivity : in other words we mentally (for want of a better word and not knowing the language of physics) construct the reality we "see" meaning we only "think" that what we perceive is reality.
Thanks, Brian, for Ann Druyan's essay and your comments.
Posted by: elizabeth wagner | July 06, 2007 at 04:01 PM
I'm reading Angier's "Canon" now and I've read one of her other science books previously. I love them because, as a non-scientist, I can almost appreciate scientific truths. I also enjoyed your "God's Whisper..." and again, although, I couldn't quite understand it, it did help me feel awe about this creation. And now, the Nova series about the universe and string theory have, contrary to what many of your readers may believe possible, reaffirmed my own belief (not knowledge) in a God.
Posted by: Pam | July 07, 2007 at 08:39 PM