Saturday, April 01, 2006

Beautiful Science

Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. --Carl Sagan
[T]he Bible describes a God who watches over one tiny world a few thousand years old. I look out there and see a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each with hundreds of billions of stars... I mean burn me for a heretic, but your God seems awfully small. --Ellie Arroway, in Sagan's Contact


The thing that gets lost in the Evolution/CreationismID debate is the beauty of science. Sure, religion's given us some good poetry and great art, but its view of the world is so narrow. Believers fear that if they lose God, they lose meaning and, to an extent, that may be true. But the meaning they give up is so small and the universe is so vast.

What spiritual inclination I have is much better sated by science than by religion. Evolution, rather than some atheist plot to destroy belief in God, is a wondrous, beautiful theory. People scoff at the idea that we're related to monkeys, but isn't evolution a better story than some God forming us from dirt? Have you tried to wrap your head around the idea that we're descended from single-celled organisms? Have you learned about the creatures which have evolved to live in the deep sea, in volcanoes, in the air, in our stomachs? If you're a computer person, have you marvelled at the genius of evolutionary algorithms?

Aren't the images Hubble has shown us more inspiring than the Genesis account of creation? The sun is but one of 400,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy and there are probably at least as many galaxies in the universe as there are stars in our own. There could easily be billions of other intelligent species out there.

I found floating therein divers earthy particles and some green streaks, spirally wound serpent wise and orderly arranged... Other particles had but the beginning of the foresaid streak; but all consisted of very small green globules joined together; and there were very many small green globules as well.... These animacules had divers colours, some being whitish and transparent, others with green and very glittering little scales...And the motion of most of these animacules in the water was so swift, and so various upwards. Downwards and roundabout, that 'twas wonderful to see: and I judge that some of these little creatures were above a thousand times smaller than the smallest ones I have ever yet seen... --Leeuwenhoek, discovering spyrogyra and other microorganisms. Via Ian McEwan, Edge.


Religion teaches of gods, angels, demons, and spirits, but science has shown us millions of miraculous creatures in every drop of water. Any child can, with a 15 dollar telescope, see bacteria and other cells for himself.

What of relativity? Quantum physics? Studying either will teach you that everything you thought you knew about the universe was wrong and open your mind to a whole new world of possibility.

Religion, at its best, can expand your mind. More often, it narrows it or limits its growth. Science... science will just blow your mind.

Recommended Reading:
A Brief History of Time
The Elegant Universe
The Selfish Gene
Cosmos

23 comments:

Axinar said...

Actually, if you surf through the phylogenetic tree, you find some interesting things.

Of course we're not just DESCENDED from single celled organisms - we ARE single celled organisms - just a few trillion of them in the same collective.

Now we're taught in school that we're primates and mammals and vertebrates, but we're also, for instance, jawed fishes.

As Carl Sagan said - evolution is a fact, not a theory - it really happened.

Now how EXACTLY it happened is subject to debate - and it's quite fascinating of course that the order of the development of life described in the first few verses of Genesis is pretty much identical to what we've found in the rocks.

Of course even TRYING to find out what happened in the rocks precludes someone frmo saying, "My god is better than your god" and avoids a fight and heaven forbid anyone should avoid a fight.

Ben Avuyah said...

Great post JA, I think my most spiritual experience was sitting on a huge rock formation I had scaled in the dead of night in Joshua Tree national park, and staring up into the unpoluted night sky with no light for miles around, seeing the backbone of the milky way and the endless stretches of stars and realizing just how impossibly huge it all was, and what a tiny part of it we are.

Indeed, if some creature did create us to cherish as the center piece of his affections, and intends the end all be all of existence to be our redemption to a small temple in jerusalem, he certainly was a bit lavish with the scenic backdrop for his little drama.

I sometimes wonder how our ancient sages might have been influenced had they known the mangnitude of the universe and our tiny place, our insignificant standing outside the main hub of the galaxy on a spiral arm, lost in a sea of stars. Would they have begun to intuit that there might be something more to life than the recorded talmudic meanderings to catch their intellect and attentions ? Who knows...

Stephen (aka Q) said...

But what has any of this to do with God? So there are 400,000,000,000 stars times 400,000,000,000 galaxies. So the cosmos is teeming with life at the microscopic level. The Bible says that there's one God behind and over it all. The Bible also says God takes a specific interest in human life — but that doesn't preclude an interest in life elsewhere, if such exists.

Currently, science is expanding the human mind in a marvelous way. But that doesn't make religion worthless. Choosing either religion or science is like choosing Picasso and not Mozart. Who says they're mutually exclusive options?

Jewish Atheist said...

Q:

You're right that they don't have to be mutually exclusive, but they too often are. Somewhere around 50% of Americans don't believe in evolution. This post is more about reminding people of the beauty to be found in science than to put down religion. If you like both, by all means, enjoy both. Just don't shut your minds to science.

Random said...

The thing that really blows my mind away? That every atom in our body heavier than hydrogen relied on the violent death of a star to come into being - and the hydrogen came into being at the very creation of the universe itself. As the Psalmist said, "When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him?" (Normally I prefer to quote from the NIV, but there are times when only the King James Version will do.)

Science at it's best, like religion at it's best, teaches us awe, wonder and humility. And both when they fall short can easily fall prey to dogmatism and narrowmindedness - the beauty and the truth still remains however even if we fail to perceive it. They're different fields of endeavour, but not opposing ones, seeking to understand how God's creation works is not an irreligious act - "worship the Lord the God with all thy mind", indeed.

And on a lighter note, given that you linked to the page of Hubble images, am I the only one who thinks that this one -

http://imgsrc.hubblesite.org/hu/db/2005/10/images/a/formats/print.jpg

looks rather alarmingly like the eye of Sauron?

CyberKitten said...

JA said: You're right that they don't have to be mutually exclusive, but they too often are.

I think they are.... [grin].

Science does ROCK as you rightly say. It's blown my mind more than once - both reading about it & seeing it for myself. The Universe is an amazing place & there's plenty of awe to go around.

asher said...

Religion and belief in evolution have one main thing in common...Faith. I mean you've really got to have alot of faith to believe that in the hundreds of billions of coincidences that took place on earth over billions of years, it all worked out to produce thousands of species, plants and rock formations. Hey, it all happened...this is science.
Sure, we don't know exactly how it happened, but we have faith. We believe that although there are millions and millions of living things on earth all through sheer coincidence, this same Las Vegas odds didn't happen anyplace else cause...cause....it just didn't.

Sort of like arguing from the conclusion.

Jewish Atheist said...

asher:

I'm done arguing about evolution. If you want to believe we were created from dirt 6,000 years ago, go right ahead.

David said...

JA,
By pitting religion against science, you assume your conclusion that the two contradict each other. A literal reading the Bible may seem to contradict recent discoveries but Judaism never advocated literal reading. Already in the pre-Mishnaic Onkelos, allegorical readings abound.

I have a question for Sagan. He claims that "Science is... compatible with spirituality". Can you give me a working definition of "spirituality" in a completely physicalistic world? I don't mean this rhetorically but my sense of the spiritual is so connected with my idea of God that I don't understand what he means.

Jewish Atheist said...

David:

I've already agreed that they don't have to be mutually exclusive, just that they too often are. Even when religion does accept science, it too often does so reluctantly and belatedly.

As for "spirituality" in a natural universe, it's simply the feelings of wonder, of flow, of awe, of transcendence, etc. etc. Basically, the same thing it means for religious people, except without the supernatural explanations.

some guy said...

Ever since I started high school (many years ago), I have found science much more emotionally moving and uplifting than religion. (This did not bode well for my yeshiva career, needless to say.) There's a grandeur in science itself and in the background story of humanity coming to realize its place in the universe (i.e., "the universe becoming aware of itself" as I think Sagan sometimes puts it) that the stories in Genesis just cannot match. As has been pointed out many times, the natural world itself seems far more grand than any of the visions of heaven (or hell) that have ever been concocted by the most active imaginations.

That said, I always found Sagan to be just a little bit too spiritual for an atheist. I think if we could have done a fMRI on him, we'd find the God-centers of his brain all lit up. (Not that that's a bad thing. Maybe if I could get my God-module lit up, I would actually have the energy to get some papers published.) But frankly, it's a little hard to understand why someone who sees the universe as essentially pointless (not to mention having probably already been explored and understood by some advanced civilization millions of years ago) would wax so poetical over the scientific endeavor. My 2 cents.

some guy said...

Incidentally, I saw Dan Dennett give a talk on Thursday promoting his new book on the evolution of religion ("Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"). Has anyone read it? His books often do a pretty good job of repackaging other people's ideas, so I'm curious if this one might be worth reading...

David said...

JA, I responded to you on my blog.

Dan said...

I mean burn me for a heretic, but your God seems awfully small.

Which, is exactly part of the scandal of religion. Even more scandalous is the Christian claim that the Creator of all that exists would actually become incarnate as a tiny little speck in this vast universe.

But this is a wondrous scandal. And the wonder here has little to do with an anthropocentric worldview. The incarnation reveals a God deeply committed to the entire cosmos -- a God deeply committed to making all things new.

Of course, such a thing seems too good to be true -- could a tiny speck like you or I actually be loved by a being that made something so vast and wonderful as the cosmos? Probably not. So we an embrace a "realism" that brushes such fantasies aside. We learn pretty quickly in life that if something is too good to be true, it actually isn't true. Which is why Christianity asserts that all faith is premised upon God's self-revelation.

Interesting blog. I hope you don't mind my hopping on here and commenting.

Grace and peace.

Jewish Atheist said...

Interesting blog. I hope you don't mind my hopping on here and commenting.

Of course I don't. Welcome. :-)

dbs said...

Believers fear that if they lose God, they lose meaning and, to an extent, that may be true. But the meaning they give up is so small and the universe is so vast.

I think that this is one of the crucial issues for the question of belief. Giving up the idea of eternal conciousness is not a small thing. Giving up the idea that each thought and action have spiritual consequences is not small.

I certainly agree with the points which you make about the elegance and beauty of science. But science makes man feel insignificant, religion makes man feel significant.

It is only by recognizing how powerful the emontional pull towards belief is, that we can let go. It is like neurosis; we do it because it serves us well - even though it makes us suffer.

CyberKitten said...

dbs said: But science makes man feel insignificant, religion makes man feel significant.

That may be true - but science also shows us our true place in the cosmos. Recognising our insignificance in the overall picture can be very liberating. Gone is the burden of being 'chosen' or 'special' allowing us to get on with our own lives instead of given them over to a basic misinterpretation of reality.

dbs also said: It is like neurosis; we do it because it serves us well - even though it makes us suffer.

Religion may, as you say, serve as a comfort blanket protecting us from the reality of the universe - but isn't truth better than illusion no matter how 'painful'?

"Know the truth and the truth will set you free".

"Seek the truth though the heavens fall."

Jewish Atheist said...

dbs:

Giving up the idea of eternal conciousness is not a small thing. Giving up the idea that each thought and action have spiritual consequences is not small.

True enough. But as CK points out, the flipside is liberation from a narrow worldview.

CK:

"Seek the truth though the heavens fall."

That's a great line! Where's it from?

dbs said...

cyberkitten,

Yes, I completely agree. I play for the non-believers team.

One overcomes neurosis by understanding where it comes from and what benefits and penelties result. Same with religion. We strive to understand why we believe such things and what the good and bad consequences are.

CyberKitten said...

JA asked: "Seek the truth though the heavens fall."

That's a great line! Where's it from?

It's a line spoken by Kevin Costner in 'JFK'. Though I've heard two versions of it:

"Speak the truth.." and "Seek the truth.."

- both of which I happily subscribe too. [hence why my Blog is called 'Seeking a Little Truth'] I think it's an actual quote from somewhere else though. Garrison (played by Costner) was quoting something else. I have a feeling that it might be Shakespeare.

dbs said: Yes, I completely agree. I play for the non-believers team.

Yup. I know you 'play' for our team. Sorry if my comments came across as a criticism of your comments.

Mark said...

JA,
I think you're beating a straw dog. Augustine wrote in the Confessions that creation praises it's creator through Man seeking to undestand it's mysteries. From Sir Thomas Moore and many others, the enlightenment push to understand Nature comes from a religious basis (and a sense of Christian eschatology according to J. Moltmann). I have some difficulty following your assertion that religion and science in opposition. Science, done wrong, on the other hand, has far more danger of losing the spiritual inclininations by reducing it's scope to Postivist limits of knowledge and possibility.

Furthermore, of the two strategies to convince the religious person who happens to believe some literal creation story (for example) from his Bible, one is to call him stupid and try to draw him away with the wonders of science and the other is to point out his own religion when properly understand calls him those same wonders science and to understand the complexity of the Creation he has been given. Which strategy might work best?

Jewish Atheist said...

Mark,

As I keep repeating, I know that religion, at its best, embraces science and allows scientific wonder to inform religious awe. However, the trend in America is in the other direction. Religious people are closing their minds to science, teaching a child's religion to grown men and women. Frankly, I don't know any strategy that will work to persuade Biblical literalists that they are wrong, but I have never called them stupid, as you imply.

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