Often my journey from true believing to churchlessness has felt like an exciting amusement park ride.
Descending from the heights of religious dogmatism, I'm both thrilled and unsettled by a sudden drop, Wheeeeee!, as beliefs drop out from under me. Then I hit a plateau and roll along comparatively smoothly until...
Wow! Another free fall, as I realize that the spiritual philosophy I embraced after discarding an Eastern form of fundamentalism is still unduly faith-based.
So I'm off on another abrupt descent, figuring that now maybe I've reached some sort of ontological ground floor where life's meaning, or the lack thereof, has a solid foundation.
I'm beginning to think that there's no end to my psyche's roller-coaster ride. A few days ago I started reading a book that I'd seen mentioned in the "Recommended" section of Scientific American and couldn't resist ordering.
Here's how Marcelo Gleiser's "A Tear at the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe" was described in the magazine.
For centuries scientists have been searching for a single theory of the universe that reveals an elegantly simple order behind the apparent complexity of the natural world. That quest continues today with the hunt for a "grand unified theory" that joins Einstein's theory of relativity with the laws governing quantum mechanics.
This is a misguided mission, argues physicist and former "Unifier" Marcelo Gleiser of Dartmouth College. It is the messiness of the universe -- not the beautiful symmetries -- that holds the key to its origins.
Since I wrote a book about the teachings of Plotinus, a Neoplatonist Greek philosopher, called "Return to the One," I could instantly identify with the term former Unifier.
I've always enjoyed the notion of oneness. Ultimate simplicity, which I like to think of as pure existence (absent existents), sends a pleasurable chill up my philosophical spine.
Gleiser, however, points out in an early chapter that the quest of science for a unified Theory of Everything is the secular counterpart of religious belief.
Given that the Final Truth necessarily explains the origin of the Universe, we now see how these two quests are one and the same: the Final Truth contains the First Cause; the First Cause contains the Final Truth. Can we, limited beings that we are, explain creation in all of its astonishing complexity?
We know at least two answers.
"Sure!" exclaim the Unifiers. "There is a fundamental set of physical laws, writ deep into Nature's essence, behind all there is. Given time, we will uncover these laws and make sense of it all. Together, these laws are the embodiment of the unified field theory, the supreme expression of the hidden mathematical symmetry of Nature. We call it the Theory of Everything."
"Sure!" exclaim the Believers. "We already know all the answers. They are written in our Holy Book. Creation is the work of our all-powerful God. Only a supernatural power could exist before space. Only a supernatural power could be before time. Only a supernatural power could transcend material reality to create it."
Powerful. Eye-opening. Thought-provoking. And disturbing, in that above-mentioned Wheee!, there goes another cherished belief sort of way.
Reading just a few chapters of Gleiser's book made me realize that he's probably right: while science is much more justified in believing that a Theory of Everything lies at the end of the investigative rainbow than religion is in its God-belief, these are still beliefs.
Here's how Gleiser summarizes his alternative to the stance of the Unifiers and Believers.
For millenia, we have lived under the mythic spell of the One. Kneeling at our temples or searching for the mathematical "mind of God," we have yearned for a connection with what is beyond the merely human; we have dreamt of an abstract perfection that we could not find in our lives.
In doing so, we closed our eyes to ourselves, refusing to accept the fragility of our existence. It is now time to move on. It is now time to shake free of the old imperative for perfection and embrace the lessons of a new scientific worldview that explores the creative power of Nature's imperfections and accepts that there are limits to knowledge.
[Update: you can get a feel for Gleiser's book in less than four minutes via a video I found linked to on his university faculty page. Scroll down to "Research Interests," click on "Personal web page," then on the video.]