Chapter Summary: This chapter discusses why science should investigate questions traditionally addressed by religion. Then, it introduces two basic and important ideas: world view and ways of knowing. A brief overview of coming chapters is next. The chapter closes by discussing some miscellaneous points.
For a long time we have been accustomed to the compartmentalization of religion and science as if they were two quite different and basically unrelated ways of seeing the world. I do not believe that this state of doublethink can last. It must eventually be replaced by a view of the world which is neither religious nor scientific but simply our view of the world. More exactly, it must become a view of the world in which the reports of science and religion are as concordant as those of the eyes and the ears. ([W03],xviii)
I remember as a little boy learning of God from my mother, a religious woman with a life-long devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. The idea of God thrilled me, but I soon grew to dislike some of my religion’s ideas. For example, I learned in a second grade Roman Catholic religion class that only people who are baptized and believe in Jesus can get into heaven. I recall thinking “What about Chinese who lived five thousand years ago? They had no chance of being baptized or believing in Jesus. Is it fair to keep them out of heaven for no fault of their own?” I remember suspecting that the teacher, a nun, was wrong about who could or couldn’t get into heaven, that she didn’t know what she was talking about.
As I grew up, I encountered other things I didn’t believe. I found some of the ideas very odd, and wondered how anyone in their right mind could believe them. For example, I was taught that anyone who dies with an unforgiven serious sin spends the rest of eternity in Hell. In those days, intentionally eating meat on Friday or missing Mass on Sunday was a serious sin. So, a child who knowingly ate a hot dog on Friday, or skipped Mass and went fishing on Sunday, might die and spend the rest of eternity in hell, horribly tortured, in the company of murderers and devils. Strange.
But even stranger was the behavior of people who, supposedly, believed those ideas. Their words said the ideas were true but their actions said otherwise. They acted as if they themselves suspected they didn’t know what they were talking about.
For example, in third or fourth grade, a classmate died of appendicitis. Though some fellow classmates worried if he was in heaven, no adult seemed concerned in the least. Of course, the adults were sorry for the little boy and his family. But none showed any real worry about the fate of his eternal soul. They all assured us (glibly, I thought) that our deceased classmate was in heaven with God and the angels. Since then, I’ve never attended a funeral where anyone, clergy included, seem the slightest bit worried about the eternal fate of the deceased. They act as if no one goes to hell, as if hell really doesn’t exist.
Science is different; scientists act as if they believe what they say. If science says plutonium is deadly, you won’t find a scientist with plutonium in his pockets. And scientists seem to know what they are talking about. When astronomers say an eclipse will happen, it does. But when some religious group predicts the world will end by September fifteenth or April tenth, it doesn’t. It seems science is truer than religion, more to be taken seriously, more real.
But why compare science and religion? Why not leave science to scientists and religion to religious people? What’s to be gained?
Well, a person might reasonably have a more than passing interest in what really happens after death. They might wonder Where do I come from? How should I live my life? and What really happens when I die? Religion discusses those questions but, for many people, its answers are not believable. Science, on the other head, ignores such questions. It has nothing to say about them.
To use an analogy, it’s as if science has food of all kinds, wholesome, true, healthy food, but no water. And as if religion has water, brackish water, polluted with confusion, fantasy, contradiction and lies. Seeing the quality of religion’s water, some people decide to eat only the healthy, clean food of science—until their thirst drives them back to religion. Religion fulfills a deep need so they eventually participate, sometimes in spite of themselves, sometimes with the excuse “Well, children need something to believe. It’s better for them to grow up with religion than without it.”
If only science had water of its own, pure, clean water. Or, dropping the analogy, if only science had answers to questions like Where do I come from? How should I live my life? and What happens when I die? If it had such answers, science would have a religion of its own, a religion as true, as powerful, and as accurate as the rest of science. The reports of science and religion would be as concordant as sight and sound. Science would finally have a comprehensive world view.
What is a world view? It’s our explanation of ourselves and the world around us. It’s what we believe to be true. It’s our estimation of “what is what.”
Most people have some explanation of themselves and the world around them. They have some idea of who they are and how they fit into the world. But ask them “ultimate” questions such as Did you exist before you were born? Will you still exist after you die? Is there an overall purpose for your life and, if so, what it is? and they usually give a standard religious answer, or say “I don’t know.” That is, their world view is either religious and non-scientific, or it’s incomplete.
Does anyone have a scientific world view that’s comprehensive, that answers ultimate questions? Probably not, because science itself doesn’t have a comprehensive world view. Science’s world view is incomplete. Science is very good at explaining part of ourselves—our liver and heart function, for example—and part of the world around us—the behavior of electricity. But science has little to say about really important questions, about ultimate questions. What the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger wrote in 1948 is just as true today.
. . . [T]he scientific picture of the real world around me is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is . . . silent about all . . . that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. . . . [T]he scientific world-view contains of itself no ethical values, no aesthetical values, not a word about our own ultimate scope or destination, and no God . . . Science is reticent too when it is a question of the great Unity . . . of which we all somehow form part, to which we belong. . . . Whence come I and whither go I? That is the great unfathomable question, the same for every one of us. Science has no answer to it. ([S05],93,95,96)
Schrodinger says science hasn’t investigated ultimate questions. Other writers believe science can’t investigate them. For example, M.I.T. philosophy professor Huston Smith believes:
Strictly speaking, a scientific world view is impossible; it is a contradiction in terms. The reason is that science does not treat of the world; it treats of a part of it only. ([S14],7).
Values, life meanings, purposes, and qualities slip through science like sea slips through the nets of fishermen. Yet man swims in this sea, so he cannot exclude it from his purview. This is what was meant . . . that a scientific world view is in principle impossible. ([S14],16).
But is it? Will science’s world view always be limited, always less than comprehensive? Or will science someday develop a comprehensive world view, a world view that explains our place in the universe, our origin and destiny? Can science investigate questions it has ignored for centuries? Or has it ignored those questions for good reason? Certainly, some early scientists had good reason to ignore ultimate questions—their own survival. The most famous is, perhaps, Galileo, who had to answer to the Inquisition for teaching the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo escaped with his life. Other early scientists were not so fortunate.
In its struggle to be born in the 16th and 17th century, science wisely decided not to investigate certain religious, philosophical, or metaphysical questions. Rather, it limited itself to the natural world, within bounds set by organized religion. Today, science still lies within those boundaries, certainly no longer out of necessity, perhaps only out of habit. Einstein describes such science as
. . . the century-old endeavor to bring together by means of systematic thought the perceptible phenomena of this world into as thorough-going an association as possible. ([E03],44).
“This world” seems to limit science’s domain. It seems to bar science from investigating the possibility of existence before birth or after death. It sets up the “perceptible phenomena of this world” as a boundary which science shouldn’t cross.
But did Einstein think science should forever remain within that boundary? Perhaps not, for in the very next sentence he offers a broader description of science’s scope.
To put it boldly, it is the attempt at the posterior reconstruction of existence by the process of conceptualization. ([E03],44).
“Existence” is a much broader term than “this world.” It includes any and all worlds—whatever exists. It suggests that even if our origin, meaning and ultimate destiny is in any way “supernatural,” it’s nonetheless a part of existence and a valid object of scientific inquiry.
Is Einstein’s wider definition appropriate for science? Is it reasonable? I believe it is. Moreover, it better agrees with science’s original goal as established by the ancient Greeks: the making of
. . . a mental model of the whole working of the universe. ([T02],21).
And it agrees with contemporary physicist Stephen Hawking’s description of science’s purpose.
[O]ur goal is a complete understanding of the events around us, and of our own existence. ([H02],169).
Certainly, our understanding is incomplete if we don’t know who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.
Today, science is no longer struggling to be born. Rather, it’s a mature, growing culture, the only world-wide culture, and the greatest intellectual achievement of the last four centuries. If it wished, it certainly could investigate ultimate questions. Moreover, Schrodinger believed it should.
. . . I consider science an integrating part of our endeavour to answer the one great philosophical question which embraces all others . . . who are we? And more than that: I consider this not only one of the tasks, but the task, of science, the only one that really counts. ([S06],51).
Certainly, many people—especially those unconvinced by religion’s answers—would welcome any light science could offer on such questions.
Carl Sagan has observed ([K01],37) there are in the United States 15,000 astrologers but only 1,500 astronomers. Many newspapers that don’t have any sort of daily science column carry a daily horoscope. Irrational, superstitious beliefs are easy to criticize, but what does science offer in their place? What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? How should we live our lives? Must science forever ignore these questions? Or can it break its centuries-old bounds and investigate questions of ultimate importance?
But how can science investigate ultimate issues? How can it find answers as true, accurate, and reliable as science itself? How can it create a scientific religion?
Suppose all the world’s scientists decided that Jesus (or Mohammed or Krishna or Buddha) is right. Suppose they unanimously voted to adopt Christianity (or Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism) as science’s official religion. That would certainly provide science with a religion, but would the religion be scientific? Would its answers be as true, accurate, and reliable, as open to question, criticism, revision, and improvement, as the rest of science? No.
Why not? What makes something a science? Something is a science when it uses science’s way of knowing. Chemistry uses science’s way of knowing so chemistry is a science. Palmistry doesn’t, and therefore is not. No existing religion uses science’s way of knowing, so no existing religion is a science. So, even if all the world’s scientists accepted a particular religion, that religion would still not be scientific.
But what is a way of knowing? It’s a way of deciding if something is true or not. An illustration may be helpful.
Astrology teaches that a Cancer is sensitive and reserved, and a Gemini is communicative and witty. How can we decide if astrology is true? What way of knowing shall we use? Personal experience is one way—my Aunt Alice is a Cancer and she’s sensitive, my friend Tom is a Gemini and he’s witty, so astrology must be true. Another way is authority or faith—someone I respect believes in astrology and says it’s true, so I believe in it, too. Yet another way is tradition—it’s thousands of years old and millions of people have believed in it, so it must be true.
Judging from personal experience, judging from authority or faith, judging from tradition—each is a way of knowing, a way of deciding what’s true and what’s not. But none of those ways is scientific. How can we decide scientifically if astrology is true? How can we judge astrology with science’s way of knowing?
Imagine giving a hundred people three horoscopes, their own and two others. Ask them which horoscope describes them best. Ask their family, their friends, their co-workers. Do they pick their “true” horoscope more than one-third of the time? Do their family and friends? If they do, then that’s scientific evidence that astrology is true. But if the “true” horoscope is picked about thirty-three times in a hundred, if no one can tell the “true” horoscope from the “false” ones, then we have scientific evidence that astrology doesn’t describe personality any better than flipping a coin. Heads you’re sensitive, tails you’re witty.
Of course, deciding scientifically is work. Deciding by faith, authority, tradition, or what other people believe, may be easier. But is it as good? Each way of knowing has its advantages and disadvantages. For a person eager to be accepted by some group of people, accepting what those people think may be the best way of knowing. Faith, authority, or tradition may be the best way for someone who wants to practice some religion. Science’s way of knowing has proven very useful for understanding the natural world.
Yet, while each way of knowing has its own advantages and disadvantages, they all aren’t equally good. Some are better than others. And picking the best way can be important. In fact, it can be a life-and-death decision. The history of medicine offers a poignant example.
Western medicine once used a way of knowing remarkably similar to science’s.
Looking nature full in the face, without being blinded by either the divine or the customary, Greek intellectuals sought rational explanations of all within man’s ken. In the medical field perhaps this was exemplified best by the followers of Hippocrates (born ca. 460 B.C. on Cos). Their best writings and practices showed the fundamentals of the scientific method—observations and classification, rejection of unsupported theory and superstition, and a cautious generalization and induction that remained open to critical discussion and revision. . . . ([R02],8).
Medicine was on the road to understanding and curing disease. It took a detour in the sixth century when the bubonic plague hit the Roman empire. The plague—which would ravage Europe again in the 14th century—struck about 540 C.E., during the reign of Justinian, and raged until about 590 C.E. At its height it claimed over 10,000 victims a day. Its total toll is estimated at one hundred million. Because contemporary physicians couldn’t understand or stop the disease, many people turned to religion.
The effect of the plague of Justinian on the field of medicine is unarguable, and was unfortunate. The Christian Church rushed in to fill the medical void, becoming doctor to the soul and the body. Progressive Greek and Roman physicians had taught that disease was caused by pathogenic agents; they were slowly, but correctly, creating the discipline of medical science. The church, however, in its new role as healer, equated disease with vice and sin, the punishment for leading an errant life . . . The brilliant ideas of Galen and Hippocrates became heresies. This repressive attitude lasted until the fourteenth century and vastly altered what would have been a very different course of medicine had it not fallen under the domination of dogma and miracles. ([P02],225).
Medicine rejected a scientific way of knowing and understanding disease, and turned to a way based on faith and divine revelation. No longer need it laboriously search for the cause of disease; divine and unerring scripture had the answers. The “answers,” however, aren’t very good. Medicine based on scripture doesn’t work, medicine based on science does. So, it’s fortunate that medicine eventually returned to the “heresies” of Galen and Hippocrates. Medicine abandoned its faith-based way of knowing and understanding disease, and returned to a scientific way. As a result, someone you know is alive today who would otherwise be dead, perhaps one of your parents or children. Perhaps you.
We’ll see more about ways of knowing in the first two chapters; the first chapter explores religion’s way of knowing while the second explores science’s. We’ll see that religion decides something is true because some authority or book says so. Therefore, the religious way of knowing demands blind acceptance; its beliefs are “set in stone,” fixed, not open to criticism, revision and improvement. On the other hand, we’ll see how science’s way of knowing—often called the scientific method— discourages blind acceptance, and welcomes discussion, criticism and improvement. As we’ll see, when a scientist theorizes that atoms behave one way, or electromagnetic fields behave another, other scientists don’t blindly accept the theory. Rather, they test it with the scientific way of knowing. Once the theory is proven, engineers exploit it by making useful devices based on the theory. In doing so they further test and prove the theory. A radio, an automobile, and a computer are more than useful tools; they’re living proof of the accuracy of the scientific theories and engineering principles they’re based on. Scientific beliefs work, they prove themselves in daily life.
In medicine, in astronomy, in history, and in numerous other fields, science’s way has yielded more and better knowledge than religion’s way. We’ll see why science’s way of discovering and testing truth—its way of knowing—has generally been more accurate than religion’s. Of course, some questions seem to demand religion’s way of knowing. Are Jews God’s chosen people? Is Jesus the Son of God? Is Krishna God? Is Mohammed God’s messenger? Could science ever answer such questions? No. But science could investigate and answer other important, and perhaps more relevant, questions, such as Who am I? Why am I here? How should I live my life? and What happens when I die?
How could science investigate and answer such questions? That takes a few chapters to explain, but in a nutshell it’s this: it could apply its way of knowing to them. Describing how science might do so is the task of chapters three, four, five and six. Chapter three discusses what science studies, with emphasis on an area that religion studies, too. Chapter four discusses what religion studies, with emphasis on the same area. Chapter five discusses types of knowledge, and people who claim direct knowledge of God or “ultimate reality.”
Chapter six builds on ideas of previous chapters to describe how science can apply its way of knowing to ultimate questions, how it can create a scientific explanation of our place in the universe, an explanation that’s as verifiable, as open to question, disagreement and improvement, as true, and perhaps as useful, as science’s explanation of physical, mechanical and electrical phenomena. Like any other knowledge produced and tested with the scientific method, a scientific religion would be an extension of science, an integral addition. Science’s world view would finally include a religion of its own, a religion not merely compatible with science, but thoroughly scientific, a branch of science in its own right, a scientific religion and religious science. Science would finally have answers to questions such as Why are we here? What is the purpose of our life? Where did we come from? and What happens when we die? answers as thoroughly tested, true, and accurate as science itself.
In the first six chapters fundamental ideas are explored. Based on those ideas, Part II—chapter seven, eight, nine and ten—presents a world view that’s deeply religious yet quite compatible with science, a world view that discusses the external world we live in, our individual internal world of thoughts and feelings, and the world of the “supernatural.” And while our world view doesn’t agree with all religions (it couldn’t because religions themselves don’t agree), and doesn’t agree with any single religion, it does substantially agree with the so-called “perennial philosophy,” the philosophy that Aldous Huxley considers ([S18],12) the “Highest Common Factor” of the world’s religions, and that Huston Smith calls ([S14],x) “the primordial tradition.”
Our world view is an example of applying science’s way of knowing to certain religious, philosophical, and metaphysical questions. But is it fully scientific? No, because it’s the world view of just one person. Yet because the world view is presented in the scientific spirit, as a hypothesis that others may criticize, correct, amend and extend, it’s also potentially a starting point for deeper inquiry. Just as other sciences grow, develop, and evolve, the world view presented in these pages may, too. Rather than a dogmatic, fixed, answer-for-all-time, it’s a seed that may one day become a comprehensive, fully scientific world view. And it’s certainly not the only world view that could be derived by applying the scientific way of knowing to spiritual and mystical insights. Other world views are possible.
In Part I and II, we’ll meet ideas of great richness and beauty, a few perhaps truly difficult, others not so much difficult as unfamiliar. In the third part—chapters eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen—we’ll apply those ideas. We’ll attempt to answer the questions “So what? How can all this affect me and my daily life?” by deriving practical consequences.
A short chapter concludes the book, followed by a bibliography.
We’ll end the introduction by discussing some miscellaneous points.
First, a brief point. I’ve chosen to follow what seems common usage and label years C.E. Years C.E. correspond to years A.D. Therefore, 1234 C.E. and 1234 A.D. are the same year. Why not A.D.? Because A.D. is Anno Domini, Year of Our Lord, and is therefore appropriate only for Christians. C.E., however, can mean either Christian Era or Common Era and so is appropriate for Christians and non-Christians alike.
Now, a more extended point. As you read this book you’ll see many bits and pieces of other books; that is, you’ll see many quotations. Quotes have full references, including page numbers, and they’re exact: any italics shown are also in the original. I do, however, occasionally correct punctuation, change an uppercase letter to lower or vice versa. These changes are indicated in the usual way, with square brackets. I also use square brackets at the end of the quote to indicate its source. For example ([M12],9) indicates page nine of book [M12] in the bibliography.
Why all the quotations?
First, since this book is an exposition and synthesis of mostly non-original material, it seems appropriate to include the original sources, to present direct evidence. Rather than being told what someone thinks, you see for yourself what they wrote. Second, quotations sometimes make the point vividly and forcefully. Third, they introduce you to authors and books with whom you may want to become more acquainted. Fourth, translations differ. So it’s wrong to say the Bible says this, or the Tao Te Ching says that. When a book wasn’t originally written in English, it’s more accurate to say this translation of the Bible says this, and that translation of the Tao Te Ching says that. In such cases I present a direct quotation.
Lastly, quotations allow me to steer a middle course between two unsatisfactory extremes. On one hand, if I present an idea but neglect to mention some religious analogue, I could be justly criticized for presenting an idea of Jesus or Buddha as my own. On the other hand, if I say that Jesus or Buddha taught a certain idea, I could again be criticized for overstepping myself and acting as an official religious spokesman. To avoid these two extremes, I present my ideas as simply and clearly as possible, along with quotations from the world’s religious, philosophical, scientific, and mystical writings. I’ll let the experts decide whether any of my ideas are actually identical to, similar to, or entirely different from someone else’s.
Now let’s discuss one purpose quotations aren’t meant to serve. When I quote the religious or philosophical opinions of a world famous scientist, I don’t mean to imply their achievement in science somehow guarantees they’re right. So, suppose Einstein thought religions should give up belief in Gods who are Persons. Or suppose Schrodinger decided mystics of different cultures and times had essentially similar experiences. And suppose Einstein and Schrodinger were great scientists. They may still be wrong. In fact, there may be equally great scientists who disagreed with them.
So why present the quotations at all? Because the quotes do demonstrate that the beliefs aren’t inherently absurd to the scientific mind. It would probably be hard to find a reputable, much less accomplished, scientist who believes in leprechauns, elves, or unicorns. But if some scientists believe the idea of God as a Person should be abandoned, or that mystics often experience the same thing, then perhaps these ideas are worth examining further.
In addition to quotations, you’ll also meet a definition now and then. Words and concepts are often defined before they’re used. The definitions are probably a result of my years in mathematics. In higher mathematics, ideas and concepts are almost always defined when they are introduced, before they’re used. There are two other reasons for definitions. First, they’re often essential for clarity and understanding. Many words have multiple meanings or an unfamiliar meaning. Or I may use a word in an unfamiliar way. In these cases, definitions aid understanding.
Clear definitions also help avoid futile arguments. Consider the following illustration.
You agree to participate in an experiment. You are asked to hold out your hand. A heavy weight is placed in it. You are also asked to keep your hand absolutely still for 10 minutes. By a great effort you manage to do so. Your back, shoulder, and arm ache. Finally, the weight is removed. Have you just done any work? The answer depends entirely on the definition of “work.” One definition of work is “effort, labor, toil.” Using this definition, you’ve just done work. The physicist, however, defines “work” in an entirely different way: work equals force multiplied by distance. Using this definition, you have done no work at all since the distance you moved the weight was zero—and zero distance multiplied by any force you exerted still gives zero work.
So there are two answers; you’ve done a fair amount of “everyday work” and exactly zero “physicist’s work.” We could waste a lot of time and energy arguing if any “real” work has been done, but I intend to waste none—there are two different ideas, everyday work and physicist’s work.
Substitute an emotionally charged word such as “God” for “work” and even more time and energy—and even blood—could be wasted.
To help avoid such waste, I define what I mean. If you understand my meaning, then we have a basis for discussion. If, on the other hand, you just don’t like my definition and insist, for instance, real work has been done no matter what the physicists say, or God is only as you conceive God to be and no one has the right to use the word “God” in any other way, then we have no basis for discussion.
Even with definitions, of course, you may not agree with what I say, but at least you’ll understand it. If I’ve done my job, the following chapters will be lucid; if you as a reader have done yours, you’ll have a clear idea of what I said. From that point, comments will be appreciated; I welcome any insights and criticisms.
Aside from the use of definitions and quotations with references, you’ll find the discussions informal, not highly technical or scholarly. Two factors force this informal level of presentation. First, necessity—I don’t have the education needed to discuss science, philosophy, metaphysics, religion, and theology on the professional level. Second, readability—this work may already be too obscure and pedantic for some people. A book that demanded the learning of a professional scientist, philosopher, metaphysician, and theologian would be, for almost everyone, an incomprehensible book. Instead, I’ve tried to write the clearest book I could. Nonetheless, you may find some ideas unfamiliar and a few, difficult. When you do, feel free to skim ahead, at least on first reading. After you’ve seen the overall picture, things may fall into place.