Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘religion’

11 JULY, 2013

Do Scientists Pray? Einstein Answers a Little Girl’s Question about Science vs. Religion

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“Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man.”

Whether in their inadvertently brilliant reflections on gender politics or in their seemingly simple but profound questions about how the world works, kids have a singular way of stripping the most complex of cultural phenomena down to their bare essence, forcing us to reexamine our layers of assumptions. Take, for instance, the age-old tension between science and religion, which has occupied the minds of luminaries from Galileo to Carl Sagan, as well as some of today’s most renowned scientific minds. The enormous cultural baggage of the question didn’t stop a little girl from New York named Phyllis from posing it to none other than the great Albert Einstein in a 1936 letter found in Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library) — the same delightful collection that gave us Einstein’s encouraging words to women in science.

The Riverside Church

January 19, 1936

My dear Dr. Einstein,

We have brought up the question: Do scientists pray? in our Sunday school class. It began by asking whether we could believe in both science and religion. We are writing to scientists and other important men, to try and have our own question answered.

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

We are in the sixth grade, Miss Ellis’s class.

Respectfully yours,

Phyllis

Only five days later, Einstein wrote back — isn’t it lovely when cultural giants respond to children’s sincere curiosity? — and his answer speaks to the same spiritual quality of science that Carl Sagan extolled decades later and Ptolemy did millennia earlier. Six years prior, Einstein had explored that very subject, in far more complicated language and mind-bending rhetoric, in his legendary conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore.

January 24, 1936

Dear Phyllis,

I will attempt to reply to your question as simply as I can. Here is my answer:

Scientists believe that every occurrence, including the affairs of human beings, is due to the laws of nature. Therefore a scientist cannot be inclined to believe that the course of events can be influenced by prayer, that is, by a supernaturally manifested wish.

However, we must concede that our actual knowledge of these forces is imperfect, so that in the end the belief in the existence of a final, ultimate spirit rests on a kind of faith. Such belief remains widespread even with the current achievements in science.

But also, everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that some spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, one that is vastly superior to that of man. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is surely quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.

With cordial greetings,

your A. Einstein

Complement this with the difference between curiosity and wonder when it comes to science and scripture and Einstein on the secret to learning anything, then treat yourself to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children in its heart-warming entirety.

Portrait of Einstein by Yousuf Karsh

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12 JUNE, 2013

Carl Sagan on Science and Spirituality

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“The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.”

The friction between science and religion stretches from Galileo’s famous letter to today’s leading thinkers. And yet we’re seeing that, for all its capacity for ignorance, religion might have some valuable lessons for secular thought and the two need not be regarded as opposites.

In 1996, mere months before his death, the great Carl Sagancosmic sage, voracious reader, hopeless romantic — explored the relationship between the scientific and the spiritual in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (public library). He writes:

Plainly there is no way back. Like it or not, we are stuck with science. We had better make the best of it. When we finally come to terms with it and fully recognize its beauty and its power, we will find, in spiritual as well as in practical matters, that we have made a bargain strongly in our favor.

But superstition and pseudoscience keep getting in the way, distracting us, providing easy answers, dodging skeptical scrutiny, casually pressing our awe buttons and cheapening the experience, making us routine and comfortable practitioners as well as victims of credulity.

And yet science, Sagan argues, isn’t diametrically opposed to spirituality. He echoes Ptolemy’s timeless awe at the cosmos and reflects on what Richard Dawkins has called the magic of reality, noting the intense spiritual elevation that science is capable of producing:

In its encounter with Nature, science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe. The very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging, even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the Cosmos. And the cumulative worldwide build-up of knowledge over time converts science into something only a little short of a trans-national, trans-generational meta-mind.

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.

Reminding us once again of his timeless wisdom on the vital balance between skepticism and openness and the importance of evidence, Sagan goes on to juxtapose the accuracy of science with the unfounded prophecies of religion:

Not every branch of science can foretell the future — paleontology can’t — but many can and with stunning accuracy. If you want to know when the next eclipse of the Sun will be, you might try magicians or mystics, but you’ll do much better with scientists. They will tell you where on Earth to stand, when you have to be there, and whether it will be a partial eclipse, a total eclipse, or an annular eclipse. They can routinely predict a solar eclipse, to the minute, a millennium in advance. You can go to the witch doctor to lift the spell that causes your pernicious anaemia, or you can take vitamin Bl2. If you want to save your child from polio, you can pray or you can inoculate. If you’re interested in the sex of your unborn child, you can consult plumb-bob danglers all you want (left-right, a boy; forward-back, a girl – or maybe it’s the other way around), but they’ll be right, on average, only one time in two. If you want real accuracy (here, 99 per cent accuracy), try amniocentesis and sonograms. Try science.

Think of how many religions attempt to validate themselves with prophecy. Think of how many people rely on these prophecies, however vague, however unfulfilled, to support or prop up their beliefs. Yet has there ever been a religion with the prophetic accuracy and reliability of science? There isn’t a religion on the planet that doesn’t long for a comparable ability — precise, and repeatedly demonstrated before committed skeptics — to foretell future events. No other human institution comes close.

Nearly two decades after The Demon-Haunted World, Sagan’s son, Dorion, made a similar and similarly eloquent case for why science and philosophy need each other. Complement it with this meditation on science vs. scripture and the difference between curiosity and wonder.

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21 MAY, 2013

Your Cousin, the Blade of Grass: Brian Cox on the Wonders of Life

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“Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.”

With his penchant for exposing the intrinsic mesmerism of everyday life through the prism of science, the charismatic particle physicist Brian Cox is as close to a Richard Feynman of our time as we can hope to get. In fact, it is Feynman he cites in the introduction to his magnificent new book, Wonders of Life: Exploring the Most Extraordinary Phenomenon in the Universe (public library), based on his BBC television series of the same title. Riffing off Feynman’s famous ode to a flower, in which the legendary physicist marvels at how some people can believe that science can detract from wonder of life and insists, instead, that “the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower,” Cox recasts the same lens on another seemingly simple but utterly miraculous wonder of life, the humble blade of grass, and uses it to illustrate Darwin’s legacy:

On its own, it is a wonder, but viewed in isolation its complexity and very existence is inexplicable. Darwin’s genius was to see that the existence of something as magnificent as a blade of grass can be understood, but only in the context of its interaction with other living things and, crucially, its evolutionary history. A physicist might say it is a four-dimensional structure, with both spatial and temporal extent, and it is simply impossible to comprehend the existence of such a structure in a universe governed by the simple laws of physics if its history is ignored.

And whilst you are contemplating the humble majesty of a blade of grass, with a spatial extent of a few centimeters but stretching back in the temporal direction for almost a third of the age of the Universe, pause for a moment to consider the viewer, because what is true of the blade of grass is also true for you. You share the same basic biochemistry, all the way down to the detail of proton waterfalls, and ATP, and much of the same genetic history, carefully documented in your DNA. This is because you share the same common ancestor. You are all related. You were once the same.

Indeed, once both you and the blade of grass were stardust. But Cox goes on to consider the disconcerting implications of this, which challenge the heart of what it means to be human, what we consider our singular and special-case humanity:

I suppose this is a most difficult thing to accept. The human condition seems special; our conscious experience feels totally divorced from the mechanistic world of atoms and forces, and perhaps even from the ‘lower forms’ of life. … [T]his feeling is an emergent illusion created by the sheer complexity of our arrangement of atoms. It must be, because the fundamental similarities between all living things outweigh the differences. If an alien biochemist had only two cells from Earth, one from a blade of grass and one from a human being, it would be immediately obvious that the cells come from the same planet, and are intimately related.

Cox explores the age-old friction between science and scripture, echoing Neil deGrasse Tyson’s depiction of creationism as a philosophy of ignorance and Richard Dawkins’s fascination with the magic of reality. Cox bemoans the “so-called controversy surrounding Darwin’s theory of evolution”:

My original aim was to avoid the matter entirely, because I think there are no intellectually interesting issues raised in such a ‘debate.’ But during the filming of this series I developed a deep irritation with the intellectual vacuity of those who actively seek to deny the reality of evolution and the science of biology in general. So empty is such a position, in the face of evidence collected over centuries, that it can only be politically motivated; there is not a hint of reason in it. And more than that, taking such a position closes the mind to the most wonderful story, and this is the tragedy for those who choose it, or worse, are forced into it through deficient teaching.

But Cox safeguards against secular fanaticism and goes on to consider the possible co-existence of science and spirituality, with a wonderful aside on labels and a gentle reminder that we simply don’t know, that scientific reductionism is as intellectually lazy as religious dogmatism, that science and philosophy need each other:

As someone who thinks about religion very little — I reject the label atheist because defining me in terms of the things I don’t believe would require an infinite list of nouns — I see no necessary contradiction between religion and science. By which I mean that if I were a deist, I would claim no better example of the skill and ingenuity of The Creator than in the laws of nature that allowed for the magnificent story of the origin and evolution of life on Earth, and their overwhelmingly beautiful expression in our tree of life. I am not a deist, philosopher or theologian, so I will make no further comment on the origin of the laws of nature that permitted life to evolve. I simply don’t know; perhaps someday we will find out. But be in no doubt that laws they are, and Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is as precise and well tested as Einstein’s theories of relativity.

Ultimately, in reflecting on the necessarily speculative nature of some of the films in the series, he reminds us that ignorance is what drives science forward and, as Feynman himself memorably put it, it is the scientist’s responsibility to remain unsure. Cox writes:

Some parts are speculative, but that is nothing to be ashamed of in science. Indeed, all science is provisional. When observations of nature contradict a theory, no matter how revered, ancient or popular, the theory will be unceremoniously and joyously ditched, and the search for a more accurate theory will be redoubled. The magnificent thing about Darwin’s explanation of the origin of species is that it has survived over a hundred and fifty years of precision observations, and in that it has outlasted Newton’s law of universal gravitation.

He echoes Robert Sapolsky’s timeless words on science and wonder, returning to the heart of Feynman’s ode to the flower and concluding:

Deeper understanding confers that most precious thing — wonder.

Wonders of Life goes on to explore such fascinating macro-mysteries and micro-miracles as why the world exists, how our senses work, and what the trees of life tell us about evolution. In the concluding chapter, Cox returns once again to our distant cousin, the blade of grass:

Go outside, now, and look at any randomly selected piece of your world. It could be a scruffy corner of your garden, or even a clump of grass forcing its way through a concrete pavement. It is unique. Encoded deep in the biology of every cell in every blade of grass, in every insect’s wing, in every bacterium cell, is the history of the third planet from the Sun in a Solar System making its way lethargically around a galaxy called the Milky Way. Its shape, form, function, color, smell, taste, molecular structure, arrangement of atoms, sequence of bases, and possibilities for a future are all absolutely unique. There is nowhere else in the observable Universe where you will see precisely that little clump of emergent, living complexity. It is wonderful. And the reason that thought occurred to me is not because some guru told me that the world is wonderful. It is because Darwin, and generations of scientists before and after, have shown it to be.

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