In a neat little essay, Adam Frank writes something that resonates to some extent with some blatterings I wrote down almost a year ago. It is about the good old science versus religion debate, and about how both sides (in their simplistic form) get it wrong.
I think Frank gets it right. On both sides, to some extent, there is too great a stress on ‘knowing’ - that is, the idea that we can grasp something like ‘objective’ reality. For example, traditional, monotheistic, doctrinal religion revolves all around ‘knowing’ – with certainty – that God exists, and that all the religious and moral doctrines flowing from that fact are always and everywhere correct. There is no place for any spiritual, direct experience of the divine; it is essentially about following the literal ‘truth’ of a book. This can be seen at its worst in calvinism – which is why I think this is one of the most flawed versions of religion.
On the other hand, in positivist, materialist science a similar stress on objective ‘knowing’ can be discerned. Here, too, there is no place for something like experience, at it is reduced to whatever happens in atoms. Mankind is seen as nothing more than essentially a big machine. At its other end, there is a zeal for discovering what the universe is composed of; whether there are parallel universes, whether there is a Theory of Everything, etc. At some hypothetical endpoint of science, we are supposed to ’know’ everything and then be happy with it. This is a sort of ‘nihilism’ that, to me at least, is not only unsatisfying, but also a misrecognition of what it is like to ‘experience’ the world.
The fact that I can experience myself and my own consciousness for me at least is a sort of wonder for which science has no adequate explanation in terms of its meaning (that is, it can describe how it mechanically comes into being, but the experience in itself is idiosyncratic). Frank says something similar. Quoting Sartre, who said ”Even if God did exist, that would change nothing” (interpreted as meaning that even if we would have ‘knowledge’ of a God, that would still leave the mystery of existence untouched), he proposes that we should focus on the act of being rather than the act of knowing.
This is where ‘spirituality’ (screw that word) comes in. But rather than having to do with ridiculous New Agey stuff, this is a call for abandoning the bastions of certainty, found in monotheistic religion and science, which only lead to needless disputes, and focusing on the immediate experience of the self. And then maybe with its connection to other parts of being. I think this is in a nutshell what Heidegger is about. But you can also find it in the eradication of the Cartesian mind-body divide in tenets of Eastern thinking. And in mysticism. Or do drugs.
Anyway, here’s Frank’s essay:
What exactly are we looking for? What fuels so much of the passion and intensity behind the debates over religion, the debates between religions and the debates surrounding science and religion? At the heart of these debates you will often find the issue of “knowing.”
Knowing if God exists, or not. Knowing how the Universe began and if a creator was necessary, or not. Knowing how human beings “became” and what constitutes appropriate moral codes in light of that becoming. Always and again, the emphasis is on knowledge, on the certainty of understanding something, of knowing some fact and its meaning. What a tragic mistake.
The great comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “People don’t want the meaning of life, they want the experience of life.” He could not have hit the nail more firmly on the head.
One thing I have never understood in the vitriol that people manage to dredge up in these science vs. religion battles is their lack clarity about goals. Is human spiritual endeavor really about “knowing” the existence of a superbeing? Does this academic “knowing”, as in “I can prove this to be true,” really what lies behind the spiritual genius of people like the ninth century Sufi poet Rumi, the 13th century Zen teacher Dogen, or more modem examples like Martin Luther King or Ghandi?
There are many reasons human beings institutionalized their spiritual longing into religions. Those reasons often devolved into considerations of power, control and real estate. Those institutions certainly have needed to enforce creed and doctrine, i.e. “knowledge.”
But the reasons individuals find their lives transformed by spiritual longing are intimate and deeply personal affairs having little to do with dusty “proofs for the existence of God.” As all those “spiritual but not religious” folks popping up in surveys on religion will tell you, the essence of the question is about experience, not facts.
Along a similar vein, in the pro-science/anti-religion camps one often hears the quest for understanding the universe put in equally ultimate, quasi-theological terms. Finding the final theory, the Theory of Everything, is held up as a kind of moment “when the truth shall be revealed once and for all.” While many practicing scientists might not see it this way, the scientific knowledge/enlightenment trope has been there in popular culture for a long time reaching all the back to Faust and up through movies like Pi.
As the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said “Even if God did exist, that would change nothing.” One way to interpret his meaning was that a formulaic “knowledge” of a superbeing’s existence is beside the point when the real issue before us every day, all day is the verb “to be.”
It’s the act of being that gives rise to our suffering and our moments of enlightenment. Right there, right in the very experience of life, is the warm, embodied truth we long for so completely.
Spirituality, at its best, points us away from easy codifications when it shows us how to immerse ourselves in the simple, inescapable act of being. Science at its root is also an expression of reverence and awe for the endless varied, resonantly beautiful experience we can find ourselves immersed in. So knowing the meaning of life as encoded in a religious creed on a page or an equation on a blackboard is not the issue. A deeper, richer experience of this one life: that is the issue!
So, can we stop thinking that discussions about science and religion have to focus on who has the best set of facts?
When it comes to the natural world, it’s hard to see how science is not going win the “facts” war hands down. But if we broaden our view to see being as the central issue, then connections between science and spiritual longing might be seen in an entirely different light.