NPR logo Chasing The Big Three Origins


Chasing The Big Three Origins

There is no better place to illustrate where science and religion intersect than when we ponder the "Three Origins": that of the universe, that of life and that of mind.

Is this the "Holy Grail" you seek? Unfortunately, no. The Grails we seek are metaphors for the understanding of life, the universe and everything (apologies to the late Douglas Adams). Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Is this the "Holy Grail" you seek? Unfortunately, no. The Grails we seek are metaphors for the understanding of life, the universe and everything (apologies to the late Douglas Adams).

Lucy Nicholson/AFP/Getty Images

Hundreds of creation myths from all corners of the world have, over the past few millennia, tried to provide some explanation to these three mysteries. In The Dancing Universe, I explored some of the common threads in these myths and how they intersect with ideas in science, in particular in cosmology.

We seem to have a deeply ingrained need to understand where we come from, and know that our origins are enmeshed with the origin of the cosmos itself: since we are thinking chunks of stardust, to understand where we came from we need to understand where stars came from, how dust got assembled into living matter, and how living matter became thinking matter.

Creation myths are pre-scientific attempts to come up with explanations of the natural world, which assume the existence of supernatural powers capable of performing what appear to be impossible deeds. Much of the perceived conflict between science and religion is due to the tension between these very different explanatory modes and the belief that these deeds are impossible and hence require the aid of entities that defy the laws of nature.

Can the three origins be explained by natural mechanisms, without the interference of supernatural entities? If they could, religions that rely on deities that exist beyond the laws of Nature would have to undergo a deep revision.

Of course, this doesn't mean that understanding the three origins would eliminate our spiritual connection with nature and with each other. On the contrary, our understanding of the world should only strengthen our spirituality. The belief that explanations of the natural world remove us from it has no foundation. Rationality and spirituality are complementary aspects of our humanity.

If we are to look for common ground in the scientific and religious modes of understanding, it is in the fascination we all share with the mystery of creation. Religious or unreligious, we ask the same questions.

Science has come a long way toward elucidating many of the mechanisms behind all three origins. In the past 400 years we have learned a great deal about the universe, about life and about the mind. These are very exciting times, when progress along all three questions is happening very fast. But we should also add that we still don't know how to answer any of them. This should not be seen as a defeat, but as an ongoing challenge.

Science thrives on open questions.

Modern cosmology has shown that the universe had a very hot infancy, and that it has been expanding and cooling for the past 13.7 billion years. Astronomers have found incontrovertible evidence supporting the big bang model, in the form of a widespread radiation that permeates space, a relic of the cosmic hot and dense past. We can confidently reconstruct the cosmic history from about a second after the "bang" onward, not too bad.

We have revealed life's genetic code and how inherited traits trickle down from generation to generation. We can go backwards and identify our last common ancestor as being a single celled organism that roamed the primitive oceans billions of years ago. But, as with the cosmos, we still can't go all the way back to the origin. In fact, the very notion that we can understand exactly how life originated on Earth may be faulty; unless we can provide conclusive evidence that there is only one possible pathway for nonliving matter to self-organize into living matter, we may never know what happened here; we may have to be content with a plausible mechanism, reproducible in the laboratory.

Even less can be said about the brain, this remarkable assembly of some 100 billion neurons that creates our sense of who we are and constructs what we call our sense of reality. However, we now can map the seats of many different areas of brain activity, using magnetic resonance imaging and PET scans. We can see that neurons in different parts of the brain seem to act in tandem, firing in resonating patterns as if playing in an orchestra without a conductor. But brain sciences are the youngest of the three and present some formidable and wonderful challenges. Given the current pace of discovery, within the next few decades we will know much more.

How far down can we go in understanding the three questions is material for future posts. Hidden here are questions on the nature of knowledge and the limits of what we can know. But to deny our progress is a terrible mistake. In fact, open questions should be presented as the reason why we need more scientists, why a child should be interested in becoming a scientist. So many mysteries so little time.

The three origins hang up there as the Holy Grails of science. What matters is what we find on the way.