05 November 1991

Science and Faith

Working together in the cause of Truth

Religion has been compelled by science to give up one after another of its dogmas...In the meantime, science substituted for the personalities to which religion ascribed phenomena...and in doing this it trespassed on the province of religion; since it classed among the things which it comprehended certain forms of the incomprehensible. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles, 1862
 The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. - Albert Einstein, speech at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939

Trust versus Doubt

"How can you possibly believe in God?" asked an incredulous psychiatrist, when I mentioned that I had been doing a kind of "peer counseling" through a program sponsored by my church.

"We physicists are a positivist lot," I replied, echoing a thought my wife had a few days earlier. "We tend to trust what we experience. For psychiatrists, it's more difficult, because one's own perceptions become a subject for analysis." He changed the subject abruptly, but after a while he began to remark on the beauty of the sea outside the window, and how his perception of that beauty could not be the product of natural selection, because it had no evolutionary survival value whatever. I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe it's a gift," I said.

Behind his question lay a world view, popularly thought to be the scientific world view, that faith is unnecessary-that all of reality is in principle knowable by logic and experiment. From the Enlightenment until the 1930s it was a world view that seemed justified. Then Kurt Gödel proved and published a theorem which stated, in effect, that within the framework of any self-consistent (non-contradictory) non-trivial set of axioms (logical rules assumed to be true) it is possible to state propositions whose truth or falsehood is undecidable in principle. In other words, there will always be truths which cannot be proved or deduced, even within the confines of the mathematics, the "Queen of the Sciences."

Now this theorem applies to the science generally, because science seeks to explain the world by means of a collection of self-consistent theories, which are subject to possible disproof by experiments. Any self-consistent theory can be axiomatized, which means that it is subject to Gödel's Theorem. Any inconsistent theory is unsatisfying to scientists (even though it may be quite useful), because experience has shown us that inconsistencies usually indicate regimes in which the theory breaks down. Such theories are eventually replaced by more consistent ones, and we are back at Gödel's Theorem. Thus, the idea that we can necessarily "know it all" through the scientific method is dead, and has been dead for the better part of a century.

As a scientist, I'm glad of it - it frees me from the need to try to know it all. I can enjoy science as the investigation and contemplation of the material universe - a vast thing, more intricate, surprising, generous, beautiful, and terrifying than we could possibly imagine without looking deeply into it. But the Theorem begs the question, "What can we know and how can we know it?"

What scientists can know starts with Decartes', "I think, therefore I am." The problem is that no amount of logic will get me from "I am" to "you are, too." If I entertain Decartes' radical doubt, then with my logic I can at best conclude that everyone and everything in the universe is a figment of my imagination. I need something more. Decartes turned to God. I need at least to trust myself and my perceptions - I need to trust that you and the world are really there. This attitude of basic trust in oneself and one's surroundings is at the core of all scientific knowledge. It is a leap of faith more naive and childlike than practiced by many religionists. It is the leap of faith we all take in order to become human. Every baby is a natural scientist in this sense - exploring, trying things out, seeing what works, discovering its power to grasp, finding its toes, trusting it's all real. I call the leap naive positivism.

Now in addition to the basic trust or faith of naive positivism, science embraces doubt. Acting alone, I cannot do science, because I may deceive myself. I must share my discovery with a community of scientists, any of whom can repeat my discovery, and so confirm it. And if they cannot repeat it, then maybe I was wrong. With their help I can search for the cause of my error, or of theirs.

This communal aspect of science is similar to the communal aspect of faith. I experience something, I talk about that experience with members of a community of faith, and they share their insights concerning it - its meaning, its possible validity, whether or not they've experienced similar things, and so on. And just as science has standards and criteria for the validity of an observation, most religions have standards, too - their dogmas and their myths, and the wisdom of their sages. These things are used to give names to (and thus to communicate about) experiences of the ineffable. Thus, (ideally) both science and religion embrace doubt[1], and attempt to deal with it by sharing experiences within a community. This sharing is itself based on belief that perceptions that can be shared are real.

Now not all perceptions can be shared. You can't share your perception of cinematography with a congenitally blind person, for example. Nevertheless, many people make the assumption that all individual, unshareable perceptions are unreal or imaginary. This is a kind of faith which I call naive negativism. A related expression of naive negativism is the belief that what can't be repeated is necessarily imaginary, a belief often held by scientists despite the observable time-irreversible evolution of our universe - strictly speaking, no event is repeatable. Naive negativism is based on a mis-placed trust (an idolatrous faith) in our ability to share and repeat all our experiences.

The critical difference between science and religion is one of technique and subject matter. Science is the discipline whereby we can discover the workings of whatever can be subjected to measurement at our will. It is based on faith in the reality of the physical world, and its techniques are logic, mathematics, experiment, and observation.

Religion (ideally speaking) is the discipline whereby we seek to explore our experiences of the Divine, and is based on faith in the Divine. (Some may prefer to call these experiences "psychological" rather than "spiritual," but I consider the two terms to mean the same thing, operationally.) The techniques are individual and/or communal prayer (including meditation and contemplation), myth (including writings and dogma), ritual (including silence, music, dance, and art), and, ideally, common sense.

Now I have heard many definitions of God, but "that which can be subjected to measurement at our will," is not among them. Nevertheless, science can speak to faith: If you distrust your senses and the physical world around you, I'm inclined to question your faith in anything else. In fact, I'm inclined to think that you may be abusing your faith to escape or deny something about reality that you dislike. And if your faith comes into conflict with physical reality, I'm inclined to think that you are straying from the path of awareness of the Divine, and becoming more concerned with your dogma. It is a signal that your faith may be idolatrous, as I think Creationism is.

Moreover, science, like a normally ordered life, is based on the acknowledgment of causality (the law of cause and effect) as it is called in Western philosophy, karma as it is known to Buddhists. Science is all about causality - if I do thus to this kind of system, it will react in such a way, even if the relationship between cause and effect is only statistical. Thus, science can speak to us and our spirituality, because the law of cause and effect is something we all struggle with in our daily lives. If we could (or would) know the consequences of our actions, we could, within the limits of physical reality, make choices that are truly free. Samsara (the world) is Nirvana - if we were willing to learn from the school of hard knocks, we would all be Enlightened.

On the other hand, faith can also speak to science: If you deny what you perceive because you cannot measure it, you blind yourself to reality by placing an idolatrous faith in your own power to measure. I'm thinking for example of experimental psychologists who deny the reality of "personality" in themselves, other people, and animals.

This is particularly ludicrous because experimental psychologists, themselves, know that the content of a creature's awareness is determined by its "umwelt," a German word meaning its perceptual "surrounding world." Scientists need to remember that our techniques of measurement are merely extensions of our five external physical senses - they do not necessarily transform those senses. In other words, if we are overlooking something, new measuring devices may only help us overlook it more carefully[2]. The attitude that "What can't be measured doesn't exist," is not only idolatrous (in that it is a mis-placed faith in our power to measure), it is unscientific.

To press the point further, the logical contrapositive (equivalent negative re-statement) of the naive positivist, "If I can measure it, it exists," is, "If it does not exist, I cannot measure it." These statements are to me self-evident. The naive negativist assertion, "If I cannot measure it, it does not exist," is the logical equivalent of, "If it exists, I can measure it," a manifestly arrogant and possibly false statement.

Now philosophers fused naive positivism and naive negativism together into so-called "logical positivism," the idea that anything that is measurable is real, and anything immeasurable is imaginary. Logical positivism is commonly mistaken to be the philosophical underpinning of scientific thought, but is itself only half true.

Shapes of Awareness

Consider the Venn diagram (Figure 1) of our relationship to our Universe. In Venn diagrams, an enclosed shape represents a set of things with a common characteristic. Naturally, the biggest, all-enclosing set in the diagram is the Universe itself. The set of all things in the Universe that we are aware of is our Umwelt. Anything in the Universe that is outside our Umwelt is outside our awareness, and some of it may even be unknowable in principle. Now it is meaningless to ascribe reality or fantasy to what we aren't even aware of, so the Real and the Imaginary are part of our Umwelt, rather than of the Universe at large. (These are basic categories - every child must at some point decide whether newspaper stories are Real or Make-Believe.) As discussed above, the Measurable is completely contained inside the Real. Now whatever is outside the Measurable is not-Measurable - that is, Immeasurable - and whatever is outside the Real and the Imaginary is neither Real nor Imaginary - it is Undecidable), either because of our limited knowledge, or in principle a' la Gödel's Theorem.

Figure 1. A Venn Diagram of our relationship to our Universe. Notice that everything that is measurable is real. Everything else in the diagram is immeasurable, and thus outside the purview of science. Our Umwelt is all that we are aware of, which is much less than everything in the Universe. Those things that we are aware of, yet are neither in the Real nor in the Imaginary, are Undecidable (or at least Undecided).

Now, as long as we're considering our Umwelt, I'd like to bring in an image from theology (Figure 2). Imagine the material universe of space and time to be a flat horizontal sheet, with time running from left to right. Perhaps the "spiritual," or the "eternal" can be considered as a vertical sheet, which intersects the horizontal, material universe in the "now." We humans spend a lot of time and effort to make sense of our perceptions by comparing them with those of our past, and our expectations of our future. We work very hard to live in both past and future, so that our attention is drawn away from the present, the now. (The intersection of the "Spiritual" and the "Material" may be like an infinitesimally thin line, barely noticeable, but if we would look up we could see forever.) Indeed, there is a time delay of a fraction of a second between an event and our seeing that event consciously - that's why drivers have a finite "reaction time" and why subliminal messages can be incorporated into movies - we are even biologically built to be a little behind the now.[3] Small wonder that wonder itself is so small a part of our Umwelt.

Figure 2. A diagram illustrating the idea that the "spiritual" or "numinous" may intersect the world in the now, which may constitute a tiny (infinitesimal) portion of our awareness or umwelt.

If all this logic and set diagramming is opaque to you, consider the neutrino, a subatomic particle. If scientists had failed to find evidence of it in their experiments, they would not have proved that it didn't exist - rather, that it was other than described by the theory - that the neutrino must be different from what they had expected. (By the way, Pauli's "little neutral one" was found.)

Thus, naive negativism is not equivalent to the naive positivism upon which both science and faith rest. "There is no god," is said by people who really mean that they stopped seeking the god they expected - it begs the question of the God who comes as a surprise. And "Science will lead you astray," is said by religious people who fear loss of their expectations, because they don't want to be surprised.

But as our understanding grows surprises (like earth's roundness and human evolution) come. The universe - it's a gift.

Through a Glass Darkly

Naive positivism serves us well as a point of departure for science, faith, and daily living - at least for those of us who consider ourselves to be mentally well. But what if I have reason to believe that my map of reality is distorted? Even mere affective disorders like depression (as opposed to cognitive disorders like schizophrenia) can, as a close friend put it, "suck the meaning of life completely out of you." I offer the following thoughts.

So-called crazy people may be both out-of-touch and in-touch with reality at the same time. That is, while they have maps of the universe in which their categories of "Real" and "Imaginary" are demonstrably (measurably) distorted, information from the Universe does flow into their awareness. The noticeable distortions in their awareness (including their awareness of God) serve to express their inner world - a world which most of us conceal more successfully, even from ourselves. Entering their inner world risks disturbing my own, but it can also stretch the boundaries of my awareness. My point is that the mentally and emotionally challenged do have cognitive and spiritual resources, although they may be more basic than those the rest of us prefer to use.

On the other hand, I think that we all share certain basic alienations or estrangements - from ourselves, each other, the natural world, and God.[4] The collective, normative world view which we construct and socialize each other to adopt may itself be one of Delusion, ignorance, or (if you prefer a Western term that has been loaded with unfortunate connotations of shame) Sin. A Buddhist might say that we participate in a collective insanity, and that one must become Enlightened to break free of it. If this seems far-fetched, consider that (1) we pay and prepare teachers poorly compared to, say, lawyers, and (2) so much of what we painstakingly mine out of the earth we put back in landfills. Seems crazy to me.

If we encounter distortions in our everyday experiences, we can expect to encounter them in our spiritual experiences as well. An example are the makyo or hallucinations Japanese Zen Buddhist students sometimes experience during the intense concentration of meditation.[5] Zen masters recognize these makyo from the descriptions and behavior of their students, and help the students to direct their attention toward reality.

Usually an admonition from a master is enough for the student, but anyone under stress can have makyo, and sometimes to correct it one must resort to experiment. There is an old story of a widower who began seeing his dead wife's ghost after he had become engaged to marry again.[6] "She knows more about me than I know myself," the frightened man said to a Zen master. "Really?" said the master. "Place a bowl of dried beans where you sleep. The next time she appears, grab a handful of beans as quickly as you can, and ask her to tell you how many beans are in your hand." The man did this, and when he questioned the ghost, she disappeared forever. He had experimentally shown that she knew only what he knew - that she was a figment of his imagination.

Now this ability to test reality by experiment is impaired in mentally ill people. Others may sometimes choose to forget they have the ability when they fear that reality may be too challenging. For example, when people worship an idea of God that precludes God from, say, evolving humans from ape-like ancestors, they are more in love with their particular idea of God, than they are with God - they are in a state of idolatrous faith. Were they a little more open to physical reality, they might be a little more open to spiritual reality as well.

In addition to the possibility of hallucinations or makyo, our perception of spiritual reality may be distorted by perceptual threshold phenomena - in which we unconsciously fill in the details of that which we can barely perceive. There is the example of "N-rays" in which a scientist trying to detect faint flashes of light from a supposedly radioactive source was actually seeing normal random activity in his own optic nerves. This makes us doubt that "still, small voice" with good reason.

Moreover, even distinct perceptions of phenomena can be in error - as attorneys and psychologists know, eyewitnesses can make mistakes. On this basis we doubt not only what we perceive, we doubt the reports of others as well. This is particularly true when the witnesses attempt to describe what is beyond their power to describe - like the descriptions that aboriginal peoples might give to their peers of their first experience of riding in a truck, or an airplane.[7]

Since our perceptions are subject to hallucination, threshold phenomena, distortion due to our inexperience or inadequate language, and other error, I advocate participation in both science and faith. Science, with its disciplined testing of reality and its grace to doubt, helps us to be honest, and can sometimes serve to warn us if we begin to engage in idolatry. More than that, it leads us to deeper understanding and appreciation of material reality, which in turn can point us further into faith. Faith, with its emphasis on participation in the Divine, gives us the courage, motivation, and power to be. Without at least some faith - the faith that this day will somehow be worth surviving - we couldn't even get up in the morning, much less do science.

Now Scientology and the New Age Movement claim to do precisely this harmonizing of science and faith. Neither of these movements is at all scientific (they embrace the language of science, but not its reality testing), and both of them are deeply idolatrous. (There is even a New Age church I know of that attracts schizophrenics because its version of reality is more in synch with theirs.) They have arisen because many people's need for faith has been denied by a Christianity which has itself become idolatrous - selling out the Good News in exchange for the class values of whoever makes up the majority of the congregation or controls the appointment of clergy. Rather than believe the lies Christians tell, Scientologists and New Agers make up a few of their own.

A Short Course in Miracles

"Do you really believe in miracles?"

"What do you mean by 'miracles'? It seems you're driving around with four of them in the back seat," I said, referring to her children.

"You know, the plagues, Moses parting the Red Sea, the pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, that stuff."

I think people put too much emphasis on miracles, and ignore the miraculous in everyday life. The miracles of beauty and love, or life itself. The miracles in the most mundane aspects of our existence. For example, for most people, most of the time, it feels good to breathe. Now you would breathe even if it felt bad, because you have to. That it feels good is miraculous. I could say as much about other bodily functions, including sex. It would be perfectly rational (from the action of unguided natural selection) for the sex urge to come over us like a strange compulsion, without any association with feelings of pleasure.

That said, what about those wild miracles - the breaking in of the Divine to alter our ordinary collective reality contrary to our expectations? As for the miracles of the past - all I can say is the accounts in the various sacred writings are how our cultures remember the events described. Their truth is the truth of faith, more than the truth of history, or science. In other words, the accounts survive because what they mean is true for us. I need more information to comment on the details.

I think it entirely possible that miracles did, do, and will occur. As I said earlier, the methods of science work very well - when applied to measurable, repeatable phenomena. However, I need faith too much to let it depend on miracles, especially since most purported miracles are the product of hoax, wishfulness, or careless thinking.[8] In fact, the wish that miracles occur comes from the same desire as the wish that they don't - we want our Universe to be what we need in order to feel secure, rather than what it is.

But there is one miracle I am waiting for, the personal miracle hinted at in some people's "near death" experiences, and in the "visions" experienced by dying people I have known. The miracle promised by all our major religions, and in its most radical way by Christianity. There's little point in arguing about it now - if it happens, we can talk about it later.

Getting Even

With all this preamble, it's time for science and faith to settle a few old scores. Long ago we had Divine Providence - the idea that an "Invisible Hand" guides our destinies. This mutated into the "Free Market" of Capitalism, the "Dialectical Materialism" of Communism, and the Clockwork Universe of scientific determinism. About the first two I'll say more later. Determinism is in for it here.

Determinism is based on the notion that if we could know the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe (and there seems to be a large, but finite number) we could, in principle, calculate the entire future evolution of the Universe. This idea was born from the structure of Newton's equations of motion and held sway for over 200 years, until the 1920's. Then we found out that very small particles begin to exhibit behavior that is masked by the sheer size of large ones. It turns out that the process of precisely measuring a particle's position destroys information about its velocity, and vice versa. That is to say, measuring exactly where a particle is gives it such a whack that we can no longer know where it's going, and measuring exactly where it's going can only be done via interactions that "smear out" where it is. That the position and velocity of a particle cannot simultaneously take on precise values is a statement of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and seems to be a fundamental limitation on the measurability of reality.

If the Uncertainty Principle struck Determinism a mortal blow in the 1920s, nonlinear dynamics delivered the coup de grace in the 1980s. The nonlinear dynamicists finally had the desperation, the courage, and the methods to tackle some of the really hard problems of Classical Mechanics (the branch of physics that deals with the motion of ordinary sized things and is described by Newton's equations). They found that even for relatively simple systems, like three bodies moving under mutual gravitational attraction, the future motion can depend so sensitively on the given conditions at any moment (positions and velocities) that the detailed motion of the system is unpredictable (or chaotic) - not only because classical measurements are only finitely precise, but because of the limitations imposed by the Uncertainty Principle as well. In other words, the Universe is not nearly as well-behaved as a wind-up clock. The Universe is not a machine or a mechanism, as we understand machines and mechanisms. Determinism is dying.

What's replacing determinism is still emerging out of the mess of attempts to unify theoretical understandings of gravitation, the strong nuclear interaction, and the weak nuclear and electromagnetic interactions, and the infant discipline of artificial intelligence. The next century promises to be a real humdinger in that regard. We may even discover that much of our own sub-conscious thinking is non-deterministic, in that many of the problems we (and "lower animals") solve without thinking simply to perceive and act in our environment are "np-complete," that is impossible to solve (in a useful time) via strictly deterministic sequential algorithms (recipes). Indeed, Roger Penrose [9] argues rather convincingly that no Turing machine (an idealized "standard" computing device that follows algorithms) can replicate conscious subjective experience and insight.

I would like to argue a different and perhaps complementary point, based on the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics. One result of the Uncertainty Principle is that nothing can stand precisely still, for then its position would be precisely x, and its velocity precisely zero. Since the Uncertainty Principle states that both quantities cannot take on precise values at the same time, standing precisely still is impossible. Every particle exhibits a little back-and-forth random motion, even at zero average energy. These motions are called zero-point oscillations. Fields like electromagnetism have zero-point oscillations, too. These have been measured via their effect on the energy levels of electrons bound in atoms - the zero-point electromagnetic oscillations cause the "Lamb Shift" in the line spectra of atoms.

Now we have yet to develop a satisfactory quantum theory of gravity, but we can be fairly sure that the gravitational field also has zero-point oscillations. One property of these oscillations is that they take on larger values (greater intensity) on smaller length scales (or equivalently shorter time scales). As John A. Wheeler first pointed out in the 1960s [10] these oscillations should be enormously intense on a distance scale known as the Planck Length (about 10-33 cm). Things like the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei (the densest form of matter known) are gigantic, but insubstantial cloud-like will-o'-the-wisps by comparison.[11] Because gravitation seems to be a kind of curvature of space-time caused by the presence of mass-energy, these zero-point gravitational oscillations may collectively give rise to a kind of "spacetime foam" that could support all sorts of interesting structure in what we normally think of as "empty space." So I think it possible that we may find someday that there is more to the mind than the brain. Perhaps some aspects of our mentality (our "souls") happen in the empty space between and within the atoms of our biochemical selves. And perhaps whatever happens in this "spacetime foam," including aspects of mind, may need to be incorporated into our theories of evolution someday.[12] Indeed, the noted neuropsychologist J. C. Eccles has already begun to consider the question of how "non-material" mental intentions may influence neural activity [13] and evolution. [14] He has considered the interaction between the world of matter-energy and the world of subjective personal experience, the soul. Rather than consider these worlds as separate, I suggest that they are united in a level of complexity that we have yet to explore.

As long as we are on the subject of gravity, I mention that the standard cosmological model is based (with some good evidence) partly on the Robertson-Walker solution to Einstein's gravitational field equations. The basic idea of this model can be grasped by imagining all of three-dimensional space to be like the surface of a balloon that is being inflated. The galaxies can be represented by pennies glued to the balloon (another John Wheeler idea). Now as the balloon expands, the pennies separate, as do the galaxies of our Universe. Since each point on the surface of the round balloon is as good as any other, each penny (galaxy) sees itself as the center, with all the other galaxies moving away from it, the speed of the movement being proportional to the distance between it and any other galaxy in question.

The implication of this is that according to the most widely accepted cosmological model, the center of the Universe for you is wherever you center your consciousness. What's more, as Buckaroo Bonzai says, "Wherever you go, there you are." You are stuck in the center of the Universe for good. This is a far cry from the days when religionists feared that science would displace humanity from the center of creation by showing that the earth revolved around the sun.

Now one from biology: The science that gave us evolution is entertaining the idea (in some quarters) that the self-replicating DNA molecule that encodes the instructions of our heredity may have arisen in the interaction of certain organic precursor molecules with a type of sediment that forms in a kind of self-replicating layered structure. In other words, we may indeed have been made (albeit in a more complicated manner than we had expected) from clay.

Finally, even our best models of the origin of the Universe stop short of explaining how the so-called Big Bang got kicked off. We can go right back to the first few fractions of a second, and then... practically speaking, it's back to God saying, "Let there be light."

The point of all this is that if the religionists had been willing to open themselves to the wonder of the physical Universe, their experience of the spiritual would have been enriched rather than denied. If the hubris of earlier scientists had made it seem less so, their hubris was a reaction to the hubris of the religionists who thought they knew everything there was to know about the universe without looking at it and everything there was to know about God without consulting him.

Making Science Moral

"Science is the road to Hell!" a country preacher hollered over my hometown radio station. Meanwhile, we kids were swallowing Sabin's oral polio vaccine, and wondering what Strontium-90 was and how it got in milk. Science is knowledge, which gives us ever more power to act and to make choices in the physical world. It can empower the powerless and deter the destructive, both of which I claim are part of peacemaking, or it can provide our world with the means of self-destruction. Its goodness and evil only reflect the goodness and evil in ourselves. It all depends on what we do with it.

One thing we sometimes do is to moralize it. A society with a sure idea of the Good will sometimes manipulate science to serve and support that idea. Such was the case with the various scientists who backed the popular racial theories that became the foundation of Nazism. This development was echoed by American scientists using various Intelligence Quotient tests to reduce the quotas of eastern European Jews who wanted to enter America to escape the gathering Holocaust.[15]

Nowadays, certain Fundamentalists are advocating "Scientific Creationism," an attempt to manipulate the truth about the material Universe (including our material selves) so as to control what people think. If knowledge of the material Universe can serve to warn us of idolatrous faith, then Creationism is an attempt to silence the alarm.

On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to scientize morality. The first attempt in this direction was Utilitarianism, the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number," of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is still used today by public policy makers in the form of "risk assessment," even though its deficiencies are apparent (as illustrated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki[16]). Later on Karl Marx tried to get scientific in his critique of Capitalism, and his followers invented a solution that far exceeded Capitalism in its cruelty. Capitalism itself is based on the idea of homeostasis (a tendency of dynamical systems to oscillate about equilibrium points) that has no more moral value than a weight jiggling on a spring. Unless we Capitalists rig the game for moral reasons some people will always die from the effects of poverty.

Rather than moralize science, or scientize morality, it is perhaps wiser to make moral choices that are informed by science. Science cannot generate or guarantee morality, but it can spare the would be moralist from some obvious mistakes. For example, a little research (scientific or historical - now that we have the case of Rumania) can show that criminalizing abortion can have terrible consequences. Precipitating these consequences may be as evil as the anti-abortionists think abortion to be.

Science gives us power, and with power come choices that we are forced to make. The choices are the price of that power. The collective and individual agony over abortion is one example. Another is the simultaneous relief and revulsion we feel concerning military uses of science. Yet another is the Human Genome Project. Soon we will have sequenced all of the DNA in the nucleus of a human cell. Eventually this will make it possible to treat and even cure an enormous number of genetically mediated diseases. First, however, it will merely enable us to diagnose and predict them, temporarily creating an enormous moral problem for insurance companies and society as a whole. Science can give us a few hints about the choices we make regarding the powers science gives us. But ultimately a moral choice is a moral choice, which demands that science be transcended rather than contradicted or abandoned. Science provides factual knowledge - for wisdom to use the facts well we must seek elsewhere.

But there is one moral teaching than we can get from science - humility. Every scientist who has ever "reached for the stars" has experienced being wrong. Not just a little bit mistaken, but absolutely publicly dead wrong. It's not such a bad feeling really, and certainly not worth killing anybody or destroying anybody's career to avoid. Everyone should try it sometime.


  1. The failures of both science and religion are often attempts to deny doubt rather than embrace it, and press through it toward truth.
  2. For example, marine biologists measure whale sounds with single hydrophones instead of arrays, because they don't consider that single hydrophones may merely extend human hearing rather than mimic whale hearing. See "Cosmic Babble," Omni, April 1992.
  3. This delay has been interpreted by psychologists as evidence for unconscious filtering of information. I think they're a little behind the times with their electrical engineering metaphors. Anyone who knows about signal processing will tell you that it probably just takes time for the brains hardware to construct an image to present to consciousness. The reality we see is probably not filtered so much as made by our brains.
  4. See "Reviving a Dead Language," at this web site.
  5. Roshi Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, New York, 1980.
  6. Recounted by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Anchor Press, New York.
  7. See also Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, Dover Publications, New York, 1952, for a fanciful example of a two-dimensional being trying to describe his experience of being lifted out of the planar world (Flatland) in which he lived and into our three-dimensional world (Spaceland).
  8. See James Randi,The Faith Healers, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989, for numerous examples.
  9. In The Emperor's New Mind, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989. Penrose also argues that a correct quantum gravity theory may need to include a theory of consciousness.
  10. J. A. Wheeler, "Geometrodynamics and the Issue of the Final State," in Relativity Groups and Topology, edited by Cecile and Bryce DeWitt, Gordon and Breach, New York, 1964. It's inaccessible to the layman, but that's where I came across the idea.
  11. A perhaps non-coincidental parallel with the expressions of mystics of all traditions to the effect that the ordinary material world becomes insubstantial and transparent to them during their mystical experiences - that it becomes less real to them than the spiritual world.
  12. While it is true that evolutionists in the early part of the century fought against the involvement of mind or purpose in the evolutionary process, their effort was a reaction against even more naive theories put forward by religionists. I think we are all in for some surprises concerning the connection between matter and spirit as we discover more of the details of how evolution occurs. Simply put, I believe that any honest inquiry into the truth will point to Truth, if pursued far enough.
  13. J. C. Eccles, "Do mental events cause neural events analogously to the probability fields of quantum mechanics?" Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 227, pp411-428, 1986.
  14. J. C. Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, Routledge, New York, 1989. See especially Chapters 8 and 10.6-10.7.
  15. See The Mismeasure of Man and Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes by Stephen Jay Gould, W. W. Norton & Co., New York.
  16. See "Obscenity and Peace" in at this website. Note also Caiaphas' statement that it was more expedient for one man to die than for the nation to perish made in reference to Jesus.

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