Science and Belief

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This page contains my blog entries for the series on Spirit and Belief.  Since the blog contains entries on other topics, this is a page where that entire series will be put in chronological order for those interested.  I am a political scientist, so this represents reflections I have on the issue, but not an academic inquiry or the voice of "expertise."  Please let me know if you have any ideas, reactions, or if you find mistakes on these pages: scotterb@maine.edu

As of October 19, 2005: (new entries to be added as I develop them in my blog)

Science and Belief In the Modern World

I.  Introduction
II.  Science and Religion
    a.  What makes faith reasonable
    b.  Are Science and Religion contradictory
    c.  Modern Physics and the Weirdness of our world
III.  The God Hypothesis
    a.  Why is there a world?
    b.  Faith and uncertainty
    c.  Existence
    d.  The border between space/time and ????
    e.  What is God?

Introduction: Deism and 'reasonable' faith

This series of entries explores the role of spirituality, religion, belief and faith in a modern world defined by reason and secularism.  I do not know for sure where this series of speculations will take me, though I firmly believe that there is a role for faith and spirituality in human existence, and the challenge for modern humans is to find a way to express that.  I also am convinced that traditional organized religions are incapable of providing that capacity moving forward; the only kind of religious belief that is congruent with science and nature is one that does not divide on the basis of which myth one accepts, or which theology one holds dear.  But given that current religious thought is dominated by these organized traditional religions, it's difficult to figure out how a new form of religious or spiritual expression might look.  My goal in this series is to think through these issues.  Feel free to e-mail me with thoughts or ideas.  My starting point for this speculative set of reflective essays is Deism.

The Deists of the 18th century, as well as Christians like Anglican Bishop Joseph Butler (at least in his work in the 1720s), were convinced that nature held the secrets of God’s will, and that only by exhibiting self-interest and pursuing happiness could we truly live according to our nature as ethical, moral humans.   Voltaire would exemplify the move from the “optimist” Deism to the “enlightenment” Deism (Thomas Jefferson is in this category); and Rousseau would recognize that evil in the world, while real, was a human not a devine creation. This, I believe, is the tradition to build from in considering the role of spirit and belief in the modern world, a tradition that begins with reason, and recognizes that claims on revealed truth are not credible. Organized religion based on conservative traditional perspectives is, to be blunt, obsolescent. It long ago lost out to enlightenment thinkers who pointed out the numerous contradictions in the Bible, the unreliability of relying on “previous authority,” and the illogic of saying that whether or not you are raised in the “true” faith is most often an accident of birth, depending on where you were born and raised. 

So, starting here (though we’ll end up perhaps months from now in a very different place), there are a couple of components to explore: naturalism and happiness. Today I’ll deal with happiness.

A proposition for your consideration: People who are not ethical and moral are very rarely happy. People who use others to achieve their own short term goals are rarely truly happy, even if they are wealthy. Is that a believable proposition? Note, I am using a psychological definition of happiness here, based on my belief that pleasure of the senses is not the same as happiness; if one could subject oneself to constant sensual pleasure that is not the same as one being constantly happy. In fact, the ultimate in pursuit of constant sensual pleasure is the addict, and their experience demonstrates that you sacrifice freedom if you become a slave to sensual pleasure. The momentary sensation is a false happiness, an external manipulation of the neural system to separate oneself from reality. Addiction to material possessions or such things as sex, violence, or any external stimuli is similar, it’s an attempt to escape the boredom and anxiety of daily existence through sensual pleasure. Psychological happiness is to have joy in living in reality, with sensual pleasure a complement to that joy, not a replacement. Sensual pleasure to cover up psychological despair or longing is inherently ineffective and likely to create negative side effects.

So, unethical people may have fun at times, they may get some pleasure, even out of seeing another person suffer. Unethical folk seem to take joy at seeing the suffering of others, ethical people rarely want even their enemies to suffer. The sensation oriented and bitter happiness of the unethical is transient; it doesn’t last, and needs constant repetition. Such people are like a glass with a gaping hole – you keep filling it, and for awhile there is water (or wine or Hefeweizen), but it runs out, and you need to keep up the refills. From here comes not only lack of happiness, but also evil, as this gaping hole often leads to desire to attack and cause pain in others in an attempt to create happiness for the self; again, a pointless pursuit, and one that leads one farther away from their natural (spiritual?) true self. Many times such folk might wrap themselves in a religious orthodoxy to create a disciplined attempt to escape the spiral. Perhaps that can work for some, but likely only as a bandaid, since a need to believe an orthodoxy to avoid the danger of attempting to gain happiness through external stimuli is to avoid confronting ones true self and situation.  Not all unhappy people are unethical -- they may simply be misguided, confused or unwilling to embrace the link between self-interest and ethics.  In our modern stressful world which creates demands and pressures unnatural to the species, many people are ethical, but create barriers to truly allowing themselves to be happy.   But unethical people are usually not truly happy.

No, the only people I know who are truly happy and content with life are people who act ethically, and genuinely care about others. Furthermore, they act out of self-interest. They do not help others out of some kind of moral obligation (gee, I guess I have to help since it’s the right thing to do…) They want to help others, they get joy and satisfaction from that. In fact, the people most happy are those who act ethically, and are also selfish. They act ethically because they truly want to act ethically. And I don’t mean that in an abstract sense such as “I want to be ethical, but find it hard to obey the rules,” but in a real sense of “that which I want to do is the same as that which is the ethical thing to do.”
In other words, people are happy when they don’t sacrifice their pursuit of happiness for some kind of rule book, their interests are ethical. Or, as I believe, they have discovered that ethical behavior achieves happiness far beyond that which behavior that abuses or uses others can achieve.

This isn’t as far from Christianity as one might think. I’m not sure who it was, perhaps Bishop Butler, who pointed out that the bible says to love your enemy as yourself. Inherent in that command is the need to love yourself. Be selfish. Be self-interested. Do what gives you joy, don’t feel guilty if you seek pleasure. But if your pleasure is fleeting or provides only short term distractions from a greater unease or sense of emptiness, you probably are misunderstanding pleasure and happiness, and not really pursuing true happiness. Either that, or you don’t accept that happiness and pleasure are good, and that selfishness is natural. If we correctly understand what brings true happiness, and if we are able to look beyond societal expectations of what we “should want” and are true to our hearts, we will find divinity and joy in our natural selfishness. But this claim only begs new questions, and I’ll continue with that in the next installment of this series.

So I am at heart closer to the Deists, albeit in a modern spiritualist sense. The Deists were too “orderly” and mechanistic in their sense of nature, they didn’t know what Einstein and quantum mechanics would do to this whole schema.  The proof of God as a first mover shows that their orderly naturalism was too deterministic and materialist; they reflected scientific knowledge at that point, but now we have much more from nature to go on, as well as recognition that reason itself has real limits.  The skepticism of Hume and Berkely show weaknesses of their approach as well.  Deism is my starting point, not my end point.
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The Deists had arguments internal to religion that are persuasive.  Look at the Old Testament, with a God ordering the Israelites to slaughter whole populations (hint: we’d call this genocide and crimes against humanity today), or favoring a thief and adulterer like King David.  Consider that the scriptures to be included in the Christian faith were voted upon in early councils with the rather grandiose claim that however the vote went, that was the infallible will of God.  Consider how especially in the Old Testament God is anthropomorphized, often with negative human traits, and how a truly infinite God would not be so vain and petty as to require adoration from creatures he created, and would be willing to send those who refused to eternal pain, even if they simply were born in a country that had a different religious tradition. 

 Now, some Christians (and while I’m picking on Christianity here since that is the pervasive religion of this culture, the same kinds of arguments can be made against pretty much all religions organized around a specialized mythology, particularly Judaism and Islam) respond to all of this with a claim, “we are not to question God and his mysterious ways.”  No one is questioning God.  All one can do is question human claims about God, particular conceptions of Gods.  The internal claims of this human conception are contradictory.  It is logically impossible for a loving, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God to have the characteristics that are given to him in the Bible.  Organized religions are localized attempts to codify tradition and a sense of meaning.  Now that we see the vast variety of religions, all with their own claims of truth and distinctiveness, it becomes clear that religion is a fallible human made attempt to understand the divine and its nature, not a revealed set of truths from a devine entity attempting to give us a rule book and convince us that our way of thinking is right, and our neighbors are wrong.  A rational person will find it very difficult to have faith in a conception of God like that.              Some defend religion with a socio-functional reason for religious belief – a particular religion may not be true, but society needs it, or it gives a group of people identity.  Since that rationale has no concern for truth, at some level it isn’t worth countering – it readily admits it makes no specific truth claim.  More fundamentally, though, there is an extreme danger in saying that for the purposes of social order we will propagate a false belief.  That is similar to fascism, and the belief that any belief to support the state and its goals was legitimate, with truth irrelevant.  When you make truth irrelevant to what to believe, it’s a slippery slope to the irrational.  Moreover, our culture is modern, secular and critical, and such motives for religious belief are doomed to fail in the long run anyway. 

Assuming we’re dealing then with beliefs that people are convinced are true, we are dealing with the concept of faith.  So what is faith?  Some would say that faith is not rational, so faith defies explanation, you either have it or you do not.  Reason is different, it is human and of the mind, while faith is sublime and of the soul.  Yet faith is not something that is simply there, it is something humans at some level choose.  Some people may be more genetically or from upbringing prone to strong devotion (Christians might call that the ‘gift of faith,’) but how that devotion is applied is a conscious choice of the individual.  That must be the conception of the Christian too, since they focus on the choice of faith in order to be saved.  If this was not a choice, then faith in a particular conception of God is programmed into those who have it, and is not into those who don’t.  Perhaps that can fit into a theology of pre-destination, but overall it seems pretty clear that humans have some control over how they choose to have and to exercise faith.

I define faith as having two components: a) belief in an unfalsifiable proposition; and b) allowing that belief to have a significant impact on the individual’s life choices.  An unfalsifiable proposition may be either logically unfalsifiable (e.g., everything happens because God wills it to happen – one could never disprove that hypothesis) or contingently unfalsifiable due to lack of the means to test (e.g., hypotheses on superstring theory that cannot be tested with equipment of the kind we have at this place and time).  The latter may at sometime become falsifiable.  Belief in either of those could be faith if it meets the second condition, strongly affecting ones life choices.  If I believe in superstring theory, it is unlikely that will guide my choice of a spouse, cause me to make sacrifices or open my house to particular strangers.  It is just a belief I have, based on reading science and reflecting on theories of the universe.  If I’m wrong, and find out that another theory is better at uniting modern physics, well, cool.  But if I believe in a God with a particular book or mythology, then I may choose only to have a spouse with a similar belief, and make a variety of life choices based on that belief.  That is faith, operationally defined.

Faith is likely generated from a confluence of emotion and reason.  Reason gives the mind the idea that belief in a particular thing makes sense, and emotion gives it the power to lead one to make life changes otherwise unlikely to be made.  One sees that in a lot of “faiths,” including communism and nationalism, secular faiths where emotion often overtakes reason in creating a strong belief in that ‘ism.’  The more one is self-critical about ones’ faith – willing to question it, willing to examine other possibilities, the willing to recognize that humans are infallible, and their choice of where to put their faith may be as well – the more ‘reasonable’ that faith is.  The more one holds on to these beliefs regardless of evidence, and in fact the more one is averse to questioning faith based on evidence, the more ‘dogmatic’ that faith is.

As society modernizes (becomes secular, industrialized, and emphasizes individualism), it becomes more likely that people who have ‘reasonable’ faith will reject old fashioned religions as simply not making sense given our increased knowledge of both the world, and other faiths.  Indeed, the age of reason and enlightenment, which started what some call the “de-Christianization” of Europe, coincides with the advent of the social process of modernization.   Two types of faith are more likely to survive this.  One would be dogmatic and more extreme, seeing the modern world and its questioning as an assault on the “values of civilization,” an enemy that threatens the essence of what human meaning is.  Thus as traditional, organized, religion becomes obsolete; there will be an increased level of confrontation between societal groups, and an increase in extremism.  The second will be a “habit-based” faith going through the motions and stating a belief, since that’s what they were taught to do, and they don’t really care to take the time to question or reflect, nor do they want to risk the social costs of rejecting their belief (rejection by family members, close friends, etc.)  This is a weaker faith, especially if the only real impact on life is that every once in awhile they go to chuch on Sunday, rather than basing their life on their faith like the more devout would do.

It’s about time to wrap this up for today.  Here’s the core point: religion of some sort seems a part of our human essence (a later entry will go into that); if the old fashioned traditional style of organized religion is becoming obsolete, then it is unlikely to be replaced by atheism or agnosticism, as they have their own logical flaws, and cannot respond to the human need for meaning, and the sense of the divine that either by psychological quirk or spiritual insight most people possess.  Rather, we have to rethink religion, spirit, and belief in order to develop ideas that are congruent with scientific and human developments, and which work in the modern world, standing up to questioning and reflection, and providing a sense of meaning.  That’s what this series of blog entries is meant to explore.

Science and Religion
    a) What makes faith reasonable?

Once we’ve determined that faith must be reasonable to be viable in the modern world (save for some cults and fundamentalists who have no problem ignoring the mind in favor of what feels good), the big question before thinking about the nature of modern spirituality is what makes a faith reasonable?  That pre-supposes that modern spirituality need rest on faith, of course. 

Think first of the following three possibilities: 1) one could argue that all we have are our experiences of nature and how we generalize from them to develop theories (science).  In such a case you could argue that spirituality is irrelevant or delusional (agnosticism and atheism); 2) one could follow the Deist approach and say that anything you need to know about spirituality can come from observations of nature, a “natural philosophy;” and 3) one could argue that faith is separate from reason, and that the real world and attempts to understand it are man’s foolish arrogance, with the truth being to study the revealed world of God.  

The first possibility requires belief (a faith?) that there will never be verification for a falsifiable hypothesis involving spiritual matters (that it is logically impossible, not just a result of contingent unfalsifiability), or that any kind of spiritual belief is arbitrary given it is about things outside our direct experience.  On its face this makes sense, but it isn’t a self-evident truth; we would need to investigate in order to determine if spiritual belief is truly arbitrary (if there isn’t a reason for choosing one over another) and logically unfalsifiable.  At best the first possibility allows dismissal of dogmatic faiths relying on a claim of revealed truth, or belief due to some kind of conversion experience.  Since conversion experiences/emotional causes for faith are similar across religions, it isn’t reasonable to believe they make rationale belief in any one faith.  And, clearly, claims that everything happens due to God’s will are logically unfalsifiable, but we need not base spiritual beliefs on such circular claims.

The third possibility some appeal, especially if you take philosophical skepticism seriously, but runs aground on that old problem of what faith is true – many claim to have revealed truth, but would a real God make having the right faith primarily an accident of birth?  How does one choose which faith to take on faith?  

The second possibility is the best one to build from (as I noted in my first essay in this series).  But while the Deists focused on nature as “God’s clockwork,” revealing truths about God, our knowledge of science now suggests that it may be better to see nature as potentially having information about the spiritual or religious side of life.  For instance, it could be that nature is simply God’s schoolhouse, where we learn lessons and hopefully have fun, out of touch with the true grand reality hidden.  That may suggest that nature is inadequate (leading to possibilities one or three, depending on your mood), but if it is a schoolhouse, it should at least have hints to explore possibilities suggested by nature.  Second, anthropomorphizing spirituality by creating a God concept is likely more a result of our human arrogance than anything about reality; nature might contain hints on the nature of “god” which could range from pan-theism to some kind of struggle between Star Wars like forces of good and evil. 

I’ll assume that nature and science, while perhaps not telling the whole truth of God or spirituality, at least are likely to have hints that could be used to develop ideas about spirituality, and help us recognize the limits of our knowledge.  Some fundamentals for doing this include: a) acceptance of basic science, especially the theory of evolution and the basic set of theories of modern physics; and b) a willingness to change belief if scientific evidence suggests past beliefs were wrong. 

Take, for example, the Roman Catholic Church.  Where would it be today if it had not ultimately accepted the Copernican revolution and Galileo, while rejecting Aristotelian scholasticism and perfect crystal circles defining stellar orbits?  In those days, ideas like those of Galileo were as radical and to traditional conservatives dangerous to the faith as some consider evolution and quantum mechanics today.  Yet reality bites, and those who try to stand against change usually are made fools by history.  Indeed, the survival of the Roman Catholic church, seen now by people as being in essence conservative, has been because of its liberalism in being willing to alter its tenets (sometimes only after long wars or obviously false teachings) to avoid being left in the dustbin of history.  With technology and science advancing, “conservative” religions will not be long for the world; they must accept that what we learn about the world cannot be denied within their religion.  The Catholic church seems to try to maintain a balance between change and tradition by moving slowly and grudgingly – but moving nonetheless.  Since even the most fundamentalist of any religion now accepts that the geo-centric theory of the universe is invalid, what else is scientifically undeniable.

 Evolution is something that cannot be denied.  Every respected biologist and almost all educated people recognize that it is a well developed theory so well supported by evidence that no one can honestly and reasonably deny its existence.  And indeed, if you scan arguments against evolution, some rest on absolute absurd claims (e.g., that it violates the laws of thermodynamics, which, when someone makes that claim, only shows that persons utter ignorance of basic science) or arguments against Darwin (whose original theories were often incomplete or had errors, but which have been improved upon and developed over the years) rather than the state of evolution theory today.  The bottom line: it is impossible to try to deny evolution and take science seriously at the same time.  Any religion that does will not last any more than the Catholic church could have lasted if it had insisted on sticking to the geo-centric theory of the universe.  The theory isn’t perfected, it isn’t unalterable – science rests on the contingent nature of all scientific truths – but there is no rationale reason to reject it.

As for modern physics, Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity (special relativity really only expanded Galileo’s relativity principle to include electro-magnetism as well as motion) altered our understanding of time and space so that we can’t see them as separate or linear.  There is no such thing as absolute time and space.  Our knowledge of subatomic particles and quantum mechanics, incomplete as it may be, also lets us know that we are in a probabilistic universe, yet one where the laws of physics do apply, and which themselves are absolute (at least in our space-time).  Any religion that denies Einstein’s theory and tries to ignore its implications is also going to be unable to last.  Later in the series we’ll go more into the science and religion issue, as well as the puzzles and possibilities raised by modern physics.

To sum up today’s entry: a reasonable faith recognizes that nature and science might give hints on things involving spirituality or religion, and this is worth investigating.  Religions which try to deny the basics of scientific knowledge or reject change in response to what we learn about the world are unlikely to be successful given the way our culture operates, and risk being purely arbitrary (I believe X because X claims to be right and I get an emotional feeling from believing in it).  The theories of evolution and relativity (special and general) are examples of such strongly verified theories that attempts to deny them or their implications are the mark of a religious belief that fails the test of reasonableness.

b) Are Science and Religion contradictory?

Question: Are religion and science contradictory?
Answer: They need not be!


Last time I mentioned two branches of science which are accepted by virtually all credible scientists: evolution, and modern physics (relativity and quantum physics). These theories seem to attack the fundamental bases of religious belief more than most science out there (they explain life and the nature of reality), but I will argue yet they still leave considerable room for spirituality, belief, and faith.

Over the next couple “articles” in this series I want to use the examples of evolution and modern physics to show the limits of science, and the opening for religion/spiritual belief. This will set the stage for investigating various ways to develop a modern spirituality, one in accord with both reason and science. I think it is important to combat the spiritual poverty of the modern secular age, where too many people replace spirituality with a belief in pure materialism. But as one who can’t be satisfied with the raw emotionalism of fundamentalist religion, or the grasping at tradition in the face of change and science, I’m convinced religion and faith in the future will have to be fundamentally different than in the past. More on that in a future article!

I find modern physics to be the most fascinating subject in science, but today I’ll finish up with using the example of evolution, which I introduced Monday. Unlike Einstein, who devised his theory based on mathematics and thought experiments, Darwin was an empiricist who traveled the world and built generalizations based on observations. Whereas the basics of Einstein’s equations remain valid, having been proven over time, expanded upon, and used to launch new kinds of examinations, Darwin’s original theories have been dramatically altered over time. Darwin was wrong in much of what he wrote, even if he set science on the right track. Consideration of why some religious folk attack evolution – and how they attack it – demonstrates both the superiority of science to dogmatism, and also helps determine what kind of faith is compatible with science.

While evolution is almost universally accepted, work is being done on various aspects of the theory, with disagreements and puzzles within. That is science; all scientific truths are contingent, even theories such as evolution, whose foundation is so widely accepted that it is considered to be as much a ‘fact’ as we can have in science, still undergoes constant revision and refinement, with controversies and dilemmas around its continued development (gravity is the same way – Einstein fundamentally altered Newton’s theory, but that doesn’t discredit Newton). This gives the propagandist opponents of evolution, usually arguing from a starting point of religious belief, ammo to come up with attempts to argue evolution isn’t a strong theory. Such an argument is either dishonest or ignorant, and also demonstrates a fundamental danger with dogmatic religious belief: it leads people to try to search for arguments against something inconvenient to their world view, rather than engaging in a legitimate search for knowledge.

Dogma – both religious and secular – can lead to the willful ignorance of evidence because of its disconnect with a pre-existing conception of how the world is. This leads obviously to propaganda (support of the faith or ism by any means necessary, often by resorting to irrational attacks such as ad hominems: ‘those godless secular humanists who want to destroy society’ and silliness like that), but also to an inability to separate belief from reality. That which is believed becomes the only reality that such people accept; any thing else must be countered or attacked as dangerous to the faith (or ism). For religions this can lead to witch hunts, inquisitions, and ‘morality police’ like those found in some conservative Islamic states. For ideologies this can lead to McCarthyism, Communist dictatorships, war, and mass murder (such as Pol Pot and his desire to create a pure Cambodia).

Thus when religious types attack evolution they do by first falsely positing it as an alternate orthodoxy or faith, which is to be studied for any inconsistencies or uncertainties, and then by ignoring the science and trying to claim that unanswered questions in the ‘orthodoxy’ they’ve defined make it an unviable “faith” (meaning that faith in their particular world view is thus justified). That, by the way, is an approach opposed to the critical, open and honest approach to reality that defines academia, and must be fought at all times, especially when there are attempts to control what is taught in the class room.

Of course, there is absolutely no ‘either-or’ choice in terms of evolution (or relativity) and religion. My Biology prof, a devoutly religious man, during my first year of college at Augusta College, a Lutheran school, gave as his first lecture in the evolution unit a long explanation of why there is no contradiction. In fact, he saw the beauty of evolution as proving intelligent design. Whether it be by quantum tunneling or the evolution of species, a “God” could use many methods.

Darwin can be compared to Copernicus: Copernicus’ idea was to replace the geo-centric theory of the universe with a helio-centric one. The helio-centric theory was ultimately proven wrong. The sun isn’t the center of the universe, Copernicus was wrong in his claim orbits were circular, and even now we don’t have all the answers. Flat earthers could write tracks about how “Copernicus was wrong!” and they’d be right – he was wrong. But he set science on the right track. Newton was wrong in many of his basic claims, but he was certainly on the right track. The beauty if science is that success does not depend on having an absolutely correct orthodoxy, but instead on being able to question and re-examine everything, keeping what works, and rejecting what does not. And there is nothing contradictory between accepting this, and believing in a God or some sort of spiritual essence to life.

The only time contradictions between science and religion appear is when: a) religious dogma tries to hold on to its claims even when they are directly disproven by overwhelming scientific evidence; and b) science is used in an effort to condemn or ridicule all faith, an act which itself ironically requires considerable faith!

Bottom line: modern spiritualism and religion can co-exist with modern science.
 

    c) Modern Physics and the weirdness of the world


Religion and spirituality are often seen as something humans invented in order to explain the natural world; a world which appears magical, wondrous, but also dangerous and arbitrary. To some, the advent of science and increasing knowledge of why things happen means that humans need to simply push away spiritual belief systems as unnecessary vestiges of a time when such things were needed to provide a coherent story of why things are as they are. There is some truth to that – particular myths may be irrelevant in the world of modern science. But the mystery is still there, and the more we learn about the world, the more mysterious it becomes.

Consider modern physics. As the work of Galileo and Newton solidified the world of classical physics, it seemed we had an orderly, predictable ‘clockwork’ universe. Everything followed the laws of physics, the laws of motion. Presumably if you could ever be able to know where every particle in the universe was, and their motion, then you could predict through the laws of physics everything that would happen in the future. If you want to include free will in this, you could always say that humans or especially God has a special status outside this clockwork universe; perhaps God gave humans the ability to choose to alter motion (we can choose to change the direction of how we move, etc.) and impact this world, that could be the gift of free will. But the universe itself was perfect and orderly.

Modern physics destroys that, though it does so in a quirky (or quarky) way. Things have gotten much more complex with the theories of special and general relativity, as well as quantum physics. Yet each step of the way, the complexity came through a kind of simplification. Things once seen as different have been unified. Galileo’s relativity was applied to electro-magnetism (special relativity), meaning matter and energy were governed by the same laws. Not only that, but Einstein showed that matter and energy were essentially the same stuff, and then with general relativity the one condition of Galilean relativity and Newtonian phyics (that all things must be in uniform motion in order to apply the laws of physics) was dropped. This solved a range of problems, and makes possible much of the technology we have today.

Yet there are implications. First, space and time are not separate, nor are they absolutes. Time is a dimension of space; space-time is an entity, not a stage on which events are played out. Gravity is simply the curvature of space-time, caused by the influence of matter. This means that time can go slower or faster depending upon one’s speed through space-time, up to the point that if you enter the event horizon of a black hole the passage of time from our perspective outside the hole would seem to stop completely (we’d never get to see you enter), while you’d see time progressing normally. Theoretically time travel to the future is possible: if you go fast enough away from earth a vast distance and come back, you might have aged only a couple years and have only felt a couple years pass while on earth 20, 30 or 50,000 or more years may have passed. Time travel to the past doesn’t seem possible without leaving space-time.

Why? Again, time and space are not absolute. Time slows as you speed up, and objects change size, at least relative to the speed of time and the size of objects in another frame of reference. In reality, the person who travels fast enough to move 50,000 years in the future when she returns to earth after a 5 year trip has only seen five years pass. Experiments have verified the expectations of special and general relativity, even some of the most bizarre ones. We live in a world where we experience time as some kind of constant, and space as a stage upon which we act, separate from time. But that’s an illusion.

But if special and general relativity aren’t weird enough, along comes quantum physics. Energy (including light) is quantized into small packets, so small that we can’t truly study them without subjecting them to so much energy that we alter them. This is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and creates a limit to what we can know about the universe. Furthermore, while these quanta seem to be particles (they will act like particles and be captured as particles when we try), they are also waves, doing things that would only be possible if the particles were in two places at the same time. We can know where they are, but can’t know how fast they are going. We can know how fast they are going, but then we won’t know where they are any more. Light is both a wave and a particle, but we can’t study light as being both at the same time, we have to choose one or the other. Even matter has wave length as well as mass.

This leads to a host of strange implications. One is that the clockwork nature of the Newtonian universe is smashed. We can only talk in terms of probabilities, at least on the small scale of quantum physics. I could go on, but I think it’s clear that modern physics makes the world seem much stranger than we learn in 8th grade science!

Using the insights of these theories, scientists have come to a very well evidenced conclusion that the universe had a beginning. Space time was created, and the continued expansion of the universe makes it clear that at the creation, space/time was exceedingly small, and then exploded outward with intense force. Even if we can get our minds around quantum physics and the implications of general relativity, it’s hard to really imagine how such a world can be; we are much more comfortable in the Newtonian world of predictability that “works” in most day to day situations

So think about it – space and time is an entity that was created. Within this creation certain laws of physics operate in ways beyond our comprehension. We live in a creation, and science can only speculate on the nature of the creation or what came before it (which is a rather non-sensical formation of the question since what was before the creation of space-time was, by definition, not within our “time” framework – we can’t even ask the question in a way that makes sense!) Now, if this doesn’t open the door to possibilities of spirit and religious belief, what does?

Now if you want to say a deity lived 6000 years ago, created the earth, and planted dinosaur bones to fool us, then this doesn’t help your case. If you want to say that humans are God’s sole creation and there is no other life out there, this doesn’t help your case (it would be rather bizarre for God to make so large and complex a universe if we are to experience it in such a limited way, on a rock in a mundane galaxy circling a rather average star). But if you want to say that this shows that the world is so vast and mysterious that it is folly to think our human minds can truly grasp the meaning behind it through material observations along, then this helps your case.

Right now it appears that galaxies are expanding away from each other faster than previously believed.  In fact, there are some theories that say this could literally tear the universe apart.

Scientists don’t know why.  There isn’t enough matter in the universe to cause such an expansion.  With the known matter, we should be in a closed system that ultimately will contract, and perhaps produce another big bang.  But that doesn’t seem to be the case.  Scientists theorize that there must be a lot of “dark matter” out there that adds mass to the universe and keeps it expanding.  This sounds basic enough; the expansion is caused by matter hidden between galaxies or somehow not able to be seen.  Yet we cannot even find evidence of large quantities of dark matter, it remains a mystery.

If that matter is out there, it probably is not the kind of matter we know about.  It is probably something very different, not captured by the standard theory.  If that’s the case, then not only are we on a little bit of created space-time which operates under weird laws, but most of what makes up our universe is something we have no clue about.  We are trying to make sense of our world with a very limited vision on what the world actually is, meaning that our theories are at best crude estimates based on limited evidence.

I could go on…string theories that posit 11 more dimensions (we only experience four), and other speculative attempts to deal with the information we have.  But by now it should be clear that while science doesn’t point to the necessity of a religious or spiritual belief system, it certainly makes it seem rational to consider the possibility.  This also shows the limits of Deist thought, which assumed that the natural world that we experience was the essence of the natural world that is.  Clearly, we experience the world from a limited frame of reference, one which keeps more of what reality is hidden than not.   Moreover, this doesn’t even touch the issue of consciousness, or why a universe might exist.

The creation of space-time cannot be explained because we have no conception of what could exist outside of space-time.  Our perceptions are bounded by essence of what we are.  After all, how could existence itself come into existence?  Why is there a world, how could a world possibly come to be?  One can see the allure of religions that give an answer steeped in tradition, faith and emotional satisfaction.  The kinds of questions listed above are outside our realm of comprehension.  We either posit an answer, or admit we don’t, and probably can’t know.

That suggests to me not only that science does not contradict religion, but scientific evidence indicates the taking spirituality and religious belief seriously is rational and useful.  Religion and spiritual philosophy reflect the one aspect of human life that has since the dawn of recorded history claimed an insight into those aspects of existence that are outside the material, literally outside of space-time.  The persistence and universality of religious/spiritual experience is prima facia evidence that there might be something to this claim.  Perhaps its not just a psychological need being addressed through myth making and searching for explanations about what happens in nature.  Maybe the self has an aspect not defined by space-time, but which nonetheless is a non-material part of each person (commonly referred to as the soul).

This pushes us away from science towards philosophy (originally science was called natural philosophy, so in a sense this takes us back to the roots).  This also suggests consideration of psychology (dreams, human nature, etc.), comparative religions, and the nature of personal reflection. 

I’m going to take a break from this series, and concentrate on the power and governance series for awhile. I wanted to get through this initial argument, however, to show clearly that science and rationalism – the essence of our secular, modern, society – not only are not contradicted by a consideration of spirit and belief, but actually suggest that such a consideration makes sense and should be undertaken.

I’m not sure when I’ll come back to this series – it could even be after the Italy trip, which would mean sometime in June.  But who knows – this is my blog and I’m free to write whatever I want to write when the ideas come J

III.  The God Hypothesis
    a)  Why is the world here?

The most fundamental question is not just why are we here.  One can imagine a universe like ours absent the planet earth.  But why is there a world?  Why is there existence?  The question is, of course unanswerable.  And it is with these unanswerables that we move from science to religion or, at least, spirituality.

Physicists tell us that reality is made up of primarily two particles: electrons and quarks (a mixture of up and down quarks make protons and neutrons).  There are other particles.  Light comes in photons, there are neutrinos, strange and charmed quarks, and other heavier generations of particles.  There might be super particles (squarks, sleptons, etc.) reflecting super symmetry, and they are pretty sure there is something called the Higgs particle, reflecting a field that permeates all of space time (the Higgs field).  That last particle has been called by one physicist the "God particle" because this field is everywhere, and gives mass to reality.  There are also anti-particles (anti-electrons, anti-quarks, etc.) that have the opposite electrical charge as the 'normal' particles.  Anti-up quarks are negative 2/3 charge, while up quarks are positive 2/3, for instance (down quarks are negative 1/3, anti-down quarks are positive 1/3).  And, of course, string theory suggests that these particles are all strings, and exist in many dimensions beyond the three dimensions we can observe from our perspective (perhaps 10, perhaps 26, or some other number).

All of these particles came from the big bang, when energy levels were such that the forces of nature were unified, and reality burst into being.  So far, so good.  There is the odd question of why is there more matter than anti-matter, but there are feasible answers for that.  BUT WHY ANYTHING?   Ouch.  That can make the brain sore.  But while religious types might chuckle as they ask "what came before the big bang," scientists can respond, "why or how did a God come into being?"  Each side answers their respective question the same way: that's something we just have to accept.

A God hypothesis makes as much sense as any here, but let's not go with one of the human constructed God ideas inherent in individual world religions.  Not Allah, not Jehovah, not the holy trinity.  Let's just start with God as an hypothesis: God is the force that caused the creation of space-time, and granted it with the laws of physics which define our particular reality.  Religious types can imagine God as a Will or a personality, scientists can consider it as simply a label for some kind of force or event not yet understood. 

Do we need such an hypothesis?  At one level, no.  The world is, and we simply can accept it.  But if we are going to try to deal with the question "why does anything exist" we do need some kind of 'god' hypothesis.  (If the word 'god' has too much baggage for you, it can be replaced with 'nature' or 'force' or whatever you are more comfortable using).  Something had to make a big bang possible; at the very least, there has to be circumstances where such an event had a probability.

Quantum mechanics might hint that this could be a random low probability of a universe that is something a kind of energy field.  But that still makes one wonder about the field or other universe.  A more religious person would argue that there was a purpose involved, a desire to create the world with certain attributes and laws.  Which makes more sense? 

Obviously, we can't do anything more than speculate.  But we can reflect on why we don't know these answers.  First, we don't know what came before space-time because, as members of space-time (limited to three dimensions in how we experience it), anything outside space-time is outside our frame of reference.  Our speculations are bound by the kind of experience we have in this reality.  As noted in the last entry, saying something is outside of space or time is non-sensical to us; we have no way of conceiving of such a state.  Second, while we can gather evidence about the big bang (background microwave radiation, the inflation of the universe, etc.), it is utterly impossible to gather any evidence or data of what may have been the state of reality before the event.   Third, we cannot fathom non-existence.  We are incapable of conceiving of the possibility that there might have been no world.  Try to envision utter non-existence.  Vast space (no, space-time is an entity, even if empty), or solid nothingness (solidness is a perception of an attribute of an object)?

These are the starting points for speculation.  Speculation will have to be playful, uncertain, and ultimately connect with experience in the world.

    b) Faith and Uncertainty

One might think that defining a "god hypothesis" in this way, so closely connected to scientific reasoning, means that traditional notions of faith, and perhaps faith itself, are obsolete.   Yet if we are to hold any beliefs about things which are not testable, and which go into the realm of moral and ethical judgments outside of science, some kind of faith is required.  Today I argue that reasonable faith is really not that much different than traditional notions of faith, correctly understood.

Back in College I had a Professor named Orvis Hanson who taught World Religions,  An ordained Lutheran Minister, he had quit being a missionary in China because he realized the Chinese had their own faith, and it was wrong for him to try to replace one that works with an outside notion.  The class had a mixed reaction.  Some said that he should have stayed, since clearly the Chinese faith was wrong (this class was at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, and he had been a missionary in pre-Communist China).  "How do I know their faith was wrong?"  He asked.  The students asserted that the Christian faith declares their faith to be wrong, and if he has faith in his religion, he has to believe their faith wrong.  He pointed out that in such cases, anyone with any faith is required to never question their faith.  One student said people shouldn't question faith, it would be like taking a match in a barn filled with hay.  I remember sitting there, at that time a believing Lutheran, going through the logic in my mind and thinking to myself, "an unquestioned faith is meaningless, it's untested adherence to a belief with no foundation except that one decided to believe it." 

I recall that conversation because I do not think the idea of uncertainty and faith are at all contradictory.  Professor (and Reverend) Hanson was a devoted member of the Church and clergy, and recognized that faith by its nature was uncertainty -- how could you have faith in anything if it were possible to be certain?  Certainty requires evidence and testing, faith is a belief despite uncertainty.   And if one is uncertain, then one has to keep open the possibility another person's faith might be correct.  In short, the nature of faith requires tolerance; if it is intolerant, it isn't faith, it is something profane, just an adherence to ones' beliefs with no effort to question, assess, or examine.  Unfortunately, the nature of organized religions is such that often that boundary gets blurred.  The faithful are told not to question, or that if they do, there are answers.  Deep introspection is considered a 'crisis of faith' if one seriously doubts their beliefs.  That is the kind of religion that turns destructive, that is a core reason why religions based on teachings of love, caring and empathy can turn into rationales for war, suicide bombings, and exclusion.   That's why someone can claim that it is Christian to say 'kill a faggot for Christ,' even though there is no support for that kind of homophobia in the Bible.  Unquestioned and unexamined faith by its nature does not work to make sure it is coherence with even the holy books it claims; it simply is a belief that is clung to.

The nature of faith and uncertainty is, therefore, set even without regard to the uncertainty inherent in the "god" hypothesis presented earlier.  In talking about reasonable faith, I'm not talking about a break with what faith has been in the past, faith in its proper form has always recognized uncertainty and must therefore be defined by toleration of other faiths.  Toleration of other beliefs does not mean acceptance or toleration of all other acts, it certainly does not require moral relativism,  That is the fallacious argument given by dogmatists: if you want anyone to think they might be wrong and others might be right, you're a moral relativist!  If you recognize human fallibility, you are a relativist!  Relativism is a moral judgment that all faiths are of fundamentally equal value.  Tolerance does not require that one believe in an inherent equality. 

So reasonable faith is a faith that is open to new evidence and theories (like science), is tolerant and respectful of other faiths, realizing that faith is only necessary if there is uncertainty (like traditional religious faith, correctly understood), and allows one to make moral judgments and distinctions, based on beliefs about the world and human nature.  In that sense, the God hypothesis reinforces the need to avoid a faith that fears to question itself (reminder -- this is the God hypothesis: God is the force that caused the creation of space-time, and granted it with the laws of physics which define our particular reality.  Religious types can imagine God as a Will or a personality, scientists can consider it as simply a label for some kind of force or event not yet understood). 

If the God hypothesis reinforces the need for a faith defined by uncertainty and tolerance of other faiths, it creates new questions in other areas: gathering evidence and making judgments.  To deal with those questions we first have to back to the question of existence.  One cannot possibly fathom or imagine non-existence of the world.  But what is existence?

    c) Existence

A philosophy student has informed me that questions of epistemology have to come before questions of ontology.  It seems to me, however, that it is sort of a chicken and egg question -- how can you know about something without thinking about what "something" means?  In any event, existence itself is the most profound mystery of the universe.  We exist.  We cannot fathom non-existence.  We can maybe fathom the non-existence of ourselves (imagine the world going on after we die), but utter nothingness? 

If the big bang was the creation of space-time, then existence itself implies if not some kind of creation, at the very least a state that has qualities we can recognize.  Even if we don't know whether or not we're experiencing the world with our senses and beliefs only slightly mediating our sense of reality or if everything is an illusion and we're really in the matrix, we can recognize existence.  The question then becomes a bit more mundane -- what exists, what are it's properties, how do we know it exists, etc.

But what is existence itself?  Well, the dictionary says "The fact or state of existing; being."  The German word for existence is Dasein which means literally "to be there" (sein = to be, da = there).  I like the German word as a start because it gives one attribute of existence beyond just a tautological sense that existence is a state of existing.  Existence is to be "there" -- or to be at some place.  In other words, existence is to be at some place.  You know you exist because you can locate yourself within some kind of context.  Even if you are floating in a vast nothingness, the absence of anything else defines that nothingness.  For us, existence is thus wrapped up in the notion of space-time, we exist within space-time, and it is non-sensical to speak of existence outside of it.  In fact, the reason we can go forward in time (I could hop a spaceship and, if I go fast enough, take a trip and return to earth in a million years while aging only a few days) is that this doesn't require I leave space time.  I can't go back in time because to get to a place in the past, I'd have to literally leave space-time, and that is impossible.  I am part of space-time, my existence would cease outside of it.

So let's go back to the God hypothesis.  If a God created space-time, then the existence of this god would have to be of a completely different sort of existence than our own.  This entity would have to exist outside space and time, which means it would be an existence that does not require location or, for that matter, duration.  Such a god could presumably view our space time universe as a whole, from beginning to end, without having to watch it pass by as a progression of events.  Indeed, for religious determinists and believers of pre-destination, this makes sense.  And in the Newtonian deterministic universe, it would simply require God know the first mover and the first position of all material entities -- from there everything else could be calculated.

With quantum mechanics, well, it gets more difficult, though exactly how so is still debated.  If the existence of a "god" is fundamentally more than the existence of an entity in space time, talking about the God hypothesis is more difficult.  We can't just say "does god exist," but we also have to think about what the difference is between existence in space-time and existence outside space time.  Space-time existence itself can be seen as having been (either naturally or supernaturally) created; existence outside of space-time is as incomprehensible to us, by definition it exists in no physical place or time.

    d) The border between Space/Time and ????

In quantum physics there are often particles which are created from nothing -- they borrow energy from the universe for a short time (this is predicted by Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and does indeed occur), creating particles that then disappear, but not before they have had an impact on reality.   When physicists came up with quantum electro dynamics, they did to do so with a trick called “renormalization.”  They measured the the mass and charge of existing particles, and did the calculations backwards, getting rather absurd starting energies/masses for those particles.  They had to incorporate a vast number of vacuum fluctuations in order to account for the predictions of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (this is way out of my field, if I’m misunderstanding this, please let me know!)  But it works.  It works in measurements as precise as we can measure, and is universally accepted due to that fact. 

But what does that all say about reality?  Energy you can borrow from the universe  (albeit only for a short time), potentially making particles that will disappear, starting points before all this that make no sense and, to be sure, are treated by many as simply a mathematical oddity rather than reality (and historically, mathematical oddities have tended to later be shown to accurately reflect reality)?  Bizarre.  Beyond that, to explain the weak force of nature in the same way the strong force was explained (the strong force is through quantum chromo dynamics, analogous to quantum electro dynamics, but involving quarks rather than electrons), a new particle has been theorized (and no science has had more success in correctly predicting new phenomena of nature than particle physics) called the Higgs boson.  This particle is essentially thought to be everywhere – it’s really a field, particles are disturbances in fields.   

In fact, the puzzles from quantum theory remain immense -- how can light be a wave and a particle at the same time (with even one solitary photon acting like both a wave and a particle)?  In fact, everything is particle and wave at the same time, though matter waves aren’t usually noticeable.  If the nature of space-time as an entity has to be considered, the nature of subatomic particles (and whether or not 'particle' is an accurate label) also could hold clues to the nature of reality and the God hypothesis.  It is only in the quantum world where all events possible actually happen, and reality behaves in ways we can describe and label, but can't really visualize or understand in terms of how we experience everyday life.

The difficulty in connecting quantum theory with relativity in a complete manner suggests that quantum theory, in all its mathematical complexity, may be hinting at a border between space-time and whatever is outside space-time.  We don't know much about what could be outside space-time; we might imagine it as whatever is outside the universe that has formed from the big bang.  That would be a space-time dependent definition of non-space time, which seems on its face to be misguided.  More likely, space-time could have boundaries to extra-space/time virtually everywhere.  It is here where we might glean hints from quantum theory as to what this boundary might be like, even if we still are in the dark about what's on the other side.

The hints seem to be that there is intense energy available to space-time at the quantum level, with reality itself perhaps more ripples in the stream (or disturbances in fields) than solid and absolute.  It may well be that the hard and fast nature of space-time that we experience is an illusion based on how our senses operate.  Indeed, think of insects who have no clue about the worlds of politics, religion, marriage, social custom, etc, that go on all over their world.  That is something outside their capacity to perceive.  While their limits may be biological within space-time, ours could be the result of the need to operate effectively in space-time. 

At this point, I am sorry I didn’t study more math, and can’t try to understand the various forms of symmetry that underlie these theories, and learn to appreciate the kind of mathematical elegance that inspired thinkers from Galileo and Newton to Einstein and Heisenberg.  But for now I’ll speculate, and think about how a God might look if we seriously entertain a god-hypothesis and take into account modern physics.

    e) What is God?

So far I've talked about "the god hypothesis" in vague terms, but clearly most religious people have a distinct perception of the God they believe in.  By now it should be clear that while I'm tolerant of religion, I do not subscribe a pre-given dogma or organized faith.  But if I want to use the term God, and not tie it to a particular religious ideal, what does it mean?   I argue that we need to completely change what we think of with the term "god."  We are still stuck in a pre-modern understanding of a concept that cannot mean what most people imagine it to mean.  Moreover, our organized religions are essentially pre-modern mythologies that reflect early human attempts to comprehend the meaning of existence, but which need to be modernized to encompass what we now know about the world.  In short, we need a kind of revolution in thinking about "religious" issues.

First, if there is a God, this god must be outside space-time, and its existence must transcend the barrier between space/time and whatever else exists.  Second, this God must have consciousness, but not necessarily a distinct identity.   Distinct identities require position in space-time; by definition a God would transcend and permeate it at the same time.  The God as a father figure in the heavens with characteristics analogous to human characteristics would not fit.  Perhaps one could imagine that a God could present his or herself in a form that we would understand, but that would be illusion, not reality.

So why a kind of will or intellect?  That seems to me to be the question that divides whether there is simply a process unfolding, whereby somehow space-time was formed, energy emerges, and life evolves, or if there is consciousness behind the process.   Non-space time consciousness could be diffuse, however, and not act with as one individual making choices between options.  Choosing between options as an individual is a linear type of identity which even in our world of space time is too simplistic (where do the options come from, how does one choose, what are the impact of cultural and other factors outside the individual, etc.).  If we're talking about an entity that is not limited by space-time, the kind of knowledge and actions it would be able to take could be beyond our imagination. 

So, either we have: a) a set of unknown processes beginning outside space-time (hence not needing a beginning) and causing our universe and all that is in it to come into being.  These processes are impersonal, undirected by any consciousness, and have no inherent meaning other than that which we create; or b) there is an unknown conscious force or will that exists outside of space-time but has access to space-time (all of it at once, including every quantum probability) and provides some direction to the universe, or some meaning.   This direction need not be deterministic for our lives, perhaps "free will" is simply a "god" allowing humans to actualize via choice different quantum probabilities.  It could be connected to meaning, in this case the meaning of existence (or why a god-consciousness would engage in a world building activity).

I argue that while scientific types often say science leads to atheism because the idea of a god is absurd, I would disagree (at least in terms of the god concept I've described).  Think of it this way.  Let's say that ant I always use as an example knew nothing but the world of ants and insects.  Suddenly an intense light is shining down on the ant hill, burning up his colleagues and destroying his community.  He can't tell what is causing it, his senses are not able to see that a seven year old girl is holding a magnifying glass and pointing it at the hill.  But what if he were able to ask a friend, "Is this being done by some greater force, or is it just nature," the friend might answer, "what force could do this but nature?  You're not going to make some myth about some powerful being having the capacity to direct intense light and heat our way, are you?"

In other words, to say the world is a reflection of consciousness in action is just as rational/possible as saying that the world we experience is a result of pure random action following 'natural' scientific laws.   Both are imaginable/possible, neither can disprove the other.  So, now that we've clarified what the god in the god hypothesis would be like, what next?