Saturday, March 16, 2013


A speculative romp through the nebulous land

between science and faith, the natural and supernatural


(Or, maybe not)

(Saturday March 16, 2013.  On the corner between Science and Faith) Generally speaking there is probably not a group more aspiritual, agnostic, or atheist than scientists.  Historically science and religion have been at odds as each has claimed the higher ground.  Scientists and mathematicians exist in the stark but ordered world of experiments, proofs, equations, and calculations.  Theirs is a world that celebrates the elegance of nature and numbers as long as they provide irrefutable proof of that which they endeavor to understand.  Yes, there was a time when religion reigned supreme as during the Dark Ages where scientists, astronomers, some of the most important members of the pantheon of brilliant minds who helped change the world, where ostracized, imprisoned, tortured and even put to death.  Much blood has been spilled in the name of organized religion and the various deities’ that define them.

Since the “Age of Enlightenment” until today religion has not ever approached the level of influence exerted over the sciences and scientific inquiry.  Religion, while still a powerful force had to retreat and surrender as one by one each scientific theory that had been controversial was found to be true.  From the times of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and Mendel, through the profound contributions to our overall database of scientific and medical knowledge as provided by Lamarck, Darwin, Einstein and all the other titans of the past, scientific discovery and medical advancement eclipsed religion as the preeminent realm of truth. 

One of the greatest minds, Albert Einstein once said, “I am a scientist who believes in God”; quite an endorsement from the man whose work in physics advanced our understanding of the laws of nature, those that dictate the properties of time and space.  Yet where Einstein saw the hand of God in the complexity of the universe, a universe theoretically conquered by his theorems and equations, science as a whole has had little regard for religion or God.  Actually, science had taken to dismissing the existence of God, mocking the idea of a Supreme Being, deriding the notion that the God of the bible was in any way “responsible” for the universe we exist in, and essentially perceiving the notion of God and Faith as antiquated and frivolous, certainly side show attractions to the increasing mountains of knowledge they were amassing across all the many and varied scientific disciplines, medicine, mathematics, and technology.    

The scientific communities disdain for God, organized religion and even the concepts of Faith and Spirituality has allowed for an uninterrupted era of progress and development made possible by the roaring machinery of the sciences.  Our world is dramatically altered as a result of this era and our universe has been rendered smaller by these achievements.  So it was certainly a surprise to read God’s name in world-wide headlines and austere peer reviewed academic journals alongside a long sought after fundamental element of nature, “The Higgs boson” or, as it is being derisively or comically, sarcastically or cynically,  designated, “The God Particle”.  God Particle? 

Long sought as the “Holy Grail” of physics, the Higgs boson is theorized to be the missing element of particular and quantum physics that provides key answers regarding the composition of matter, the state and relationships among atoms, and helps unify theories about the very nature of the atomic and subatomic world.  Arguably, there are probably not 500 people of the face of the Earth who actually know the significance of this alleged “discovery” or its implications on a non-theoretical, practical level.  This is all pretty heady stuff not readily accessible to an untrained, not very highly educated population. 


In a strange juxtaposition of science and religion this past week saw once in a lifetime events; At the Vatican in Rome, Italy the Roman Catholic Church named a new Pontiff after a sitting Pope retired for the first time in 600 years.  At the site of the immense atomic super collider, The Large Hadron Collider that sits in a 17-mile long circular tunnel straddling France and Switzerland, atoms smashed revealing in a fraction of a fraction of a nanosecond the elusive particle known as the Higgs boson.  One of the oldest institutions on the planet and one residing on the most cutting edge of modern science each laid claim to a first within a matter of hours.  The new Pope Francis, God’s Vicar on Earth and the Higgs Boson, The God Particle each made their auspicious debut. 

There is no small irony in this coincidence.  The fact that the very group of people who most malign the belief in God chose to evoke his name to designate their long sought “missing link” of the Standard Model of physics.  The proposed existence of the Higgs boson was first posited in 1964 by the scientist whose name is also used to designate it. Peter Higgs and colleagues asserted that there had to be a particle that was pivotal in giving mass the ability to be mass.  Although this was an intriguing theory for those intrigued by such things, there was at that time a slim chance that their theory could ever be proven.  Technology that has produced the Super Collider was not even yet a distant glimmer in the eyes of physicists.  The last 50 years provided the technology needed to run the type of experiments required to prove the elusive boson of Higgs theory did in fact exist.  

Some involved directly in this largely obtuse but to them extremely critical pursuit say they have actually identified the Higgs boson while for others there exists some degree of uncertainty.  For the former, the quest is over; for the latter they see a “footprint” of the elusive boson and are awaiting further analysis of the collected data.  Even in the scientific community there are doubters.


The scientists, physicists, and mathematicians with the most invested in the chase for the Higgs boson oddly enough fall within the “theoretical" sect of their respective disciplines.  There is an element of hypocrisy when theoretical physicists and theoretical mathematicians proclaim “proof” of some of the fundamental components of their areas of expertise.  Theoretical implies “not fully understood or proven”.  To those who live outside the rarified air of academia and research in these disciplines, all the “theories” in the world are just that, theories.  They are constructs largely based on supposition, extrapolation and, in some instances, imagination.  They hold up computer models and exotic calculations and equations as validation if not vindication for their closely held and oh so precious theories.  More than tenure and reputation are at stake for them; they may have spent their entire careers married to a theory or set of axioms that eventually are shown to be flawed if not completely bogus.  After all, who wants to go to a physician who practices “theoretical” medicine?  Not many would be comfortable with such a practitioner.  Yet, in the more arcane and highly specialized and speculative disciplines being a “theorist” is a distinction of some grandeur garnering respect of peers.

The question that follows is how can theorists simply dismiss God?  How can scientists pursuing answers to questions that can only be “proven” on a blackboard or with the aid of super computers attest to any measure of certainty?  There is more than a healthy dose of arrogance and hubris, intellectual superiority and condescension emanating from such individuals.  If anything, one could logically ask the question that one can be a theoretical believer in God and possess a theoretical Faith, correct?  If not, why? 


The average person lives in a world largely unencumbered by the esoteric questions that scientists revel in.  Yes, one might wonder idly about some of the practical mysteries of modernity and the technology that is so pervasive in our lives.  We may use computers and iPods, tablets and cell phones, swipe our debit cards at the market and microwave our food and occasionally wonder how such devices actually work.  It is easy to take for granted that they do; remarkably so. 

There was a time not too distant in our past here the technology of the day was understandable by the masses.  The kitchen appliances used to cook, bake, broil and toast were simple straightforward mechanisms.  The internal combustion engine and other basic machinery were but the newest versions of levers and pulleys; they were but technological refinements and advances of their primitive forerunners, the basic equipment that brought us to the threshold of the age of technology.

Not many people sit at the kitchen table and ponder it as a collection of frenzied molecules in perpetual motion held together by the same elemental forces that comprise the universe.  We may look at the night sky and marvel at its enormity without thoughts about its origins or whether it is expanding or contracting.  We may stumble across a program on the National Geographic or Discovery while channel surfing and listen to some astrophysicist discussing the ability of his discipline and its technology to actually being able to “hear” the eons old reverberations of the birth of the universe at the time of the “The Big Bang” in the form of radio-magnetic waves.  Are his beliefs faith or folly?  Is that which he sees as the Prime Mover just another name for that which a person who believes in God worships?    Are they separated in their beliefs only by that which they assign as the cause for the effect?


If all the phenomena of nature, the seen and the unseen, and all the dogma, tenets, beliefs and catechisms of faith could be represented by an enormous mountain, those on one side of the mountain would see the sun rise while those on the others would simultaneously see the sun set.  A singular event perceived as polar opposite due to perspective.  Perhaps there is a corollary in the divide between science and faith in this analogy.  Certainly both elicit similar actions and provoke related beliefs in their respective adherents.  The scientist and the faithful each hold a degree of certitude in that which they cannot see.  Scientists use experiments and observation, calculations and linear implications of each to bolster their beliefs while the person of Faith, capital “F” Faith embraces natural occurrences as part of a pre-ordained or at least Divine plan that they need not have physical confirmation of.  While the scientist may dismiss the Faithful as simplistic, na├»ve’, or foolish, he must also concede how fragile are some of the bedrock principles he places his “faith” in.

The certitude of science is not contrary to but a rather a distant cousin of the moral certitude of the Faithful.   In the long run it is irrelevant and unimportant the two reconcile; it serves neither’s purpose to do so.  The gradients of shadows that separate these two groups are not always in such sharp relief; the empirical suffices for the scientist, the spiritual for the faithful. 

Despite the antagonism between science and faith throughout history and even today, there is a sublime similarity not in what they each believe but simply in that they each believe.  If earthbound cosmologists can “factually” attest to the atmospheric content of a distant star than the faithful can make just as solid a claim as to God’s hand in creation of that star.


In recent years science has made forays into the nebulous tract of terrain between the natural and, for lack of a better word, the supernatural.  It is in this shadow land that science has made efforts to reconcile the centuries old Cartesian Duality; the premise that mind and body are distinct substances.  In this and other arguments mind is a synonym for the soul, that spiritual belief that connotes a vital “essence” of self that continues on in a different plane of existence after the corporeal body has ceased to function. The belief in soul or life essence is present in virtually all religions and spiritual sects.  Science maintains that mind is but a construct of the brain, no more mysterious or Divine than any of the numerous capacities of the central nervous system.  Science sees the “ghost in the machine” as no more than the intricate dynamical working between neurons and axons, dendrites, synapses and the neurochemical stewin which they are bathed.

Scientists and theologians have struggled with the daunting challenge of maintaining religious beliefs while accepting science’s view of the natural world.  This pursuit brings the issue closer to home and presents itself on a more manageable scale and scope of investigation.  Why seek answers in the cosmos when the neurosciences have evolved to such a level of advancement that they continue to unlock the mind’s mysteries?  The answers sought might be closer to home than ever before or they will remain hidden, elusive and, perhaps unattainable via the scientific method.    


Among all the myriad advances across all disciplines of the sciences over the past 50 years, one of the most exciting and practically promising is that of Complexity and Chaos Theory.  The basics of premises underlying these theories are deceptively simple and have already proven to have numerous and diverse practical applications.  Essentially the hypothesis that order can be and often is a product of chaos has opened new frontiers across the entire spectrum of the hard and “soft” sciences.  These concepts build on and in some ways disassemble the Laws of Thermodynamics particularly that of entropy.  That the universe and all it contains is in a perpetual state of movement towards disorganization, complexity and chaos theory supports the opposite supposition.

Some have “found” the hand of God in the complexity of a universe in constant motion not to disarray but rather towards more order.  Random occurrences are no longer as random as they were once thought; and cohesive patterns, distinct displays of order emerge from the most chaotic environments despite the numerous variables at play.  It is here among these theories and observations that science may edge that much closer to a “hidden order”, a “blind watchmaker”, a “prime mover” that may be called by a scientific name or called God.  So very much remains unknown and as yet unknowable but it is in this realm of systems and feedback loops, fractals and elemental relationships that even the most objective observer would be hard pressed to deny the possibility, just the remotest of probability that there is indeed a Higher Power.  It is comforting in a sense that this discourse is ongoing and gaining adherents along the way as more and more evidence accumulates pointing to a universal principle of order from chaos, a brand of harmony amidst the astonishing complexity of nature.


And now we return to where we began after this rather haphazard traipsing through disputed territory.  We would not have made this trip if not for the interest generated by the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson – The God Particle.  Everything remains open to interpretation and everything can be seen through the viewer’s own beliefs, ideas, and perspectives.  That will always be so as it should be.

It all comes down, perhaps, to a matter of choice.  We can chose our beliefs and interpret the natural world through our own unique prism of perception.  Some of us will see science at its best, others, the nudging force of  a supernatural hand behind the quarks and quirks of life on  this insignificant planet locked in an elliptical orbit around an insignificant star in a remote corner of a universe of such vastness it is difficult for even the most intelligent to fully comprehend.  but we can all contemplate; we can each consider that which might capture our imagination or strain our limits of credibility.  That is both the challenge and the beauty of our world and our lives today.  We are free to examine what we will by whatever means we will and accept or deny conclusions or, at least piecemeal explanations for the questions we ask.

Science will continue to unlock the mysteries of mind and matter and, in this march forward people of faith will see more and more of God's intentionality.  Science may never locate the physical anatomic location of the soul and the machinations of brain may explain the intricacies of mind.  Whatever the future holds there will always be huge swathes of contested ground between science and faith.  That distinct irrefutable proofs are not forthcoming and the universe will continue to protect her mysteries will suffice.  Everyone on either side of the gulf can find their own answers within the confines of their own conscience and consciousness.  To agree to disagree may be enough. 


Copyright The Brooding Cynyx 2013 © All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Brooding Cynyc said...