We humans long for permanence, for some kind of lasting presence. Witness the closing lines of Shakespeare's famous "Sonnet 18":
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."
So much of our perplexity as we face life comes from the inherent contradiction between our expectation of timelessness and ever-changing nature: We are molecular machines made of fragile matter. Yet we sustain, within the very core of our being, the idea of infinity. How mysterious remains the remarkable transition from flowing neurotransmitters within our neocortex to our yearning for transcendence.
It is from this niche that many religious flourish, supplying our yearning with visions of timeless realms. This they do by creating a false dichotomy between the material and the immaterial, the material existing within the realm of becoming, the immaterial within the realm of being. What are we to do if we yearn for this dichotomy in an age of science?
Is being scientific necessarily incompatible with our human desire for transcendence?
There are many answers to this question, of course, in many degrees — from yes to no.
In a recent essay, which inspired this one, Maria Popova brings back some of Bertrand Russell's insights on these matters, extracted from his book-length essay What I Believe. I repeat one here:
"Mind and matter alike are for certain purposes convenient terms, but are not ultimate realities. Electrons and protons, like the soul, are logical fictions; each is really a history, a series of events, not a single persistent entity. In the case of the soul, this is obvious from the facts of growth. Whoever considers conception, gestation, and infancy cannot seriously believe that the soul in any indivisible something, perfect and complete throughout this process."
Russell goes on to write: "This is not materialism: it is merely the recognition that everything interesting is a matter of organization, not of primal substance." [My italics.] This sentence could be the motto for complexity theory, which strives to describe how different organizational laws emerge at different levels of material complexity.
Science describes how matter organizes itself. It does so by bringing together our capacities for abstract insight and tool-making. As such, it is a very human enterprise, a product of how we make sense of things. And for this very reason, it is necessarily incomplete. Science is a work in progress, which is a good thing. Russell again: "It is difficult to imagine anything less interesting or more different from the passionate delights of incomplete discovery."
As we circle back to the question of timelessness, to our longing for permanence, we can see that traditional science has little to offer. This is where so many grow disenchanted, as they search for something more. How can we remain scientific and still satisfy our yearning for transcendence?
Buddhism offers one answer, detachment of things material. How hard is that in practice, though, especially for us living in a world surrounded by people and things we love? I find it impossible to define myself without making reference to loss, the losses that so much shaped my past and will surely be part of my future.
The only path I see goes back to science and its incompleteness. We contemplate and often make reference to "ultimate reality," that which is the most profound essence of the natural world. We can imagine ultimate reality as the realm of all answers, of all ultimate explanations to the questions we pose, material or otherwise. It is also the realm of questions we haven't yet posed and of those we won't, of that which is beyond our reach. Given that we only perceive a fraction of what's "out there," and that even this fraction is predicated by the way we look at things, we can only have a foggy picture of what this ultimate reality entails. If sometimes a bit of the fog dissipates as we make a new finding, it quickly thickens again as we ask new questions.
The incompleteness of knowledge is its own sustaining drive.
Although science strives to make sense of ultimate reality, the picture we get is always myopic. Beyond what we have learned and will learn of how matter organizes itself in myriad ways, there is all that we won't learn, the "unchartable" territory of ultimate reality. There we find the transcendence we strive for: a mystery that is seen through the eyes of science and yet remains beyond its reach.
Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.