Religion

Searching For Meaning In An Age Of Science

Here at 13.7, one of the things we try to do is to spark discussion and reflection on some perennial questions, be they related to pressing issues such as global warming and the energy crisis or to fundamental issues, such as the meaning of time or the science-religion debate.

Today, I'd like to bring up a question that, in my view, is at the very core of the age-old antagonism between science and religion: Did the development of science create a spiritual void? Is science only good for producing cold, hard facts and antibiotics? Or can it go deeper than that, perhaps providing a new form of spirituality?

To start with, I'd like to quote from my book The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World:

"The development of science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with its rational interpretation of natural phenomena, was followed, at least in the West, by a progressive abandonment of religion. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, religious beliefs responded to most of the anxieties of life and, most important, of death. There was divine purpose to our terrestrial existence, which started with the Creation through the action of God and would again end through his actions, at the judgment day. The comfort that was to be found in faith gradually gave way to a growing secularization of Western thought ... The historian of religion S. G. F. Brandon expressed this worry clearly in 1968 when he wrote, 'for Western thinkers there can be no more urgent task than that of resolving this dilemma, and, if possible, of producing an adequate philosophy of history, i.e., of the meaning of man's life in time.'"

"The question then is ... How? Some of my science colleagues resolve this difficulty by separating science from faith and opting for a particular system of belief, which offers them solace in places where science can't go. They claim that their science illustrates even more clearly the beauty of the Creation and the wonderful spirit of God (or gods) that permeates all things."

"Powerful and inspiring as this compromise is, I still believe that science can do better than just offer a rational explanation of the world, which is merely reconciled with religion in the privacy of people's minds. I believe that science, in an effort to understand the unknown, transcends its more immediate role of quantifying the workings of nature. Perhaps this is what Einstein referred to as his 'cosmic religious feeling,' the essentially religious inspiration behind the act of rationally understanding the world."

"Science and religion spring from the same anxieties that baffle the human spirit. And the common thread tying them together is our finite existence in an apparently infinite cosmos. It is the passage of cosmic time (as defined by the expansion of the universe), the same for a bacterium, a person, a star, and the universe, that we find the true unity of all things."

It is also the cause of much pain and suffering in our lives, as we lose those we love and must confront our own mortality.

I find solace in how modern science places us within the cosmos: the materials that make us and our planet came from the same stars; the time that we depend upon so much to quantify change is a measure of the expansive universe itself. We are, in a very direct sense, products of the comic history. We are, now and here, a living and thinking conglomerate of trillions and trillions of atoms, condensations of energy that will flow away one day. As John Muir wrote, "When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world."

There is no single solution to all our wants.

I can't say where you find meaning in your life, but in my case, there are many facets to this quest. I find it in the search for understanding that being a scientist allows me to engage on, I find it in my family and friends, and I find it being a human on rare planet Earth. To me at least, the meaning is not on the science itself but on the quest for knowledge. I guess the same happens to a musician, who finds his/her meaning in playing. The techniques provide the means, but are not an end in themselves. It's playing, and sharing the music, that matters.

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