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.