I find scientific explanations of the universe much more satisfying than religious ones.
Science grounds hypotheses in reality that can be observed, tested, and experimented upon. Religion constructs airy-fairy castles in the sky that are divorced from everyday experience.
But there's a point, way out there, where observing, testing, and experimenting aren't possible – not even in theory. For example, much of the universe is forever beyond human knowledge because it is receding from us faster than the speed of light, so no signal will ever reach us from this domain.
However, we can envision a possibility, remote as it is, that someday, somehow, faster than light travel or communication will be available to humans. Then much more of the universe will be within the bounds of what can be known.
When it comes to ultimate explanations, though, I'm decidedly skeptical that science ever will be able to come up with answers to the questions that mysticism, spirituality, and religion explore with such zeal.
Why does existence exist? Where do the laws of nature come from? Are there other universes besides our own? Does reality consist of more than the four dimensions we're familiar with?
Last November I criticized physicist Paul Davies' new book, "Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe is Just Right for Life," for claiming that science could supply answers to essentially religious questions.
Davies strikes me as a scientist who brings religion into his work through ungrounded philosophical speculation.
His ideas sometimes sound like what you'd expect from a bunch of stoners sitting around smoking dope and musing on What It's All About. "Man, there could be a whole universe in one molecule of that smoke, and we could just be a puff of hot air in the Big Dude's hookah pipe!"
I admitted that I hadn't read his book, having based my critique on reviews by other people and an essay Davies wrote. I've now finished "Cosmic Jackpot" and haven't changed my mind.
Still, it's a fascinating read. Davies clearly lays out possible explanations for why the universe is as it is, and why living beings (us) have evolved an ability to comprehend, albeit most imperfectly, the cosmos. In a final chapter he lists them as:
A. The Absurd Universe
B. The Unique Universe
C. The Multiverse
D. Intelligent Design
E. The Life Principle
F. The Self-Explaining Universe
G. The Fake Universe
H. None of the Above
Davies says that his inclinations lie in the directions of E and F. Yet he admits that this predilection isn't based on much more than a hunch.
Many scientists will criticize my E/F inclination as being crypto-religious. The fact that I take the human mind and our extraordinary ability to understand the world through science and mathematics as a fact of fundamental significance betrays, they will claim, a nostalgia for a theistic worldview in which humankind occupies a special place. And this even though I do not believe Homo sapiens to be more than an accidental by-product of haphazard natural processes.
But I do believe that life and mind are etched deeply into the fabric of the cosmos, perhaps through a shadowy, half-glimpsed life principle, and if I am to be honest I have to concede that this starting point is something I feel more in my heart than in my head. So maybe that is a religious conviction of sorts.
Yes, maybe. Indeed, probably. Old habits die hard. In Davies. In myself. In everybody.
We're necessarily locked into ways of looking at the world that reflect our animalistic capacities. Our eyes capture a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, so we speak of "divine light." Our legs allow us to move from place to place, so we speak of a "spiritual path."
Yet how do we know that the way we relate to the world bears any resemblance to how things really are? Or whether the words "how things really are" possess any meaning beyond what a human being gives to them?
How. Things. Really. Are.
Upon even a slight bit of reflection, every thought in my head, or yours, turns out to be a product of mentality that has evolved upon a single insignificant planet circling one of several hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is but one of a hundred billion or so others.
Yet we think we know what it is all about. Or at least, that we can speculate about where the answers may lie.
Writing about Davies, the Rationally Speaking blog reminds us of Wittgenstein's adage, ""Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
In the chapter preceding Davies' E/F preference, he ends with what strikes me as a more honest and defensible posture than his admitted "hunch."
Both religion and science draw their methodology from ancient modes of thought honed by many millennia of evolutionary and cultural pressures. Our minds are the product of genes and memes.
Now we are free of Darwinian evolution and able to create our own real and virtual worlds, and our information-processing technology can take us to intellectual arenas that no human mind has ever before visited, those age-old questions of existence may evaporate away, exposed as nothing more than the befuddled musings of biological beings trapped in a mental straitjacket inherited from evolutionary happenstance.
The whole paraphernalia of gods and laws, of space, time, and matter, of purpose and design, rationality and absurdity, meaning and mystery, may yet be swept away and replaced by revelations as yet undreamt of.