Why Science is Religion
Fair warning to our Loyal Readers. This article will be different from what you’ve come to expect. It’s not about politics…except that it is. It’s not about current events…except that it is. It’s not about Democrats and Republicans…except that it is. And it is intensely personal…except that it’s not.
It’s about science and speculation, and whether we as a nation should fund basic research with no expected practical benefit — except it’s really about religion and spirituality and why we should fund that.
I make my living writing software. I also write fantasy and science fiction novels. I’m also a minister. Here’s why it’s all the same thing.
The world’s first geneticist was a Catholic monk named Gregor Mendel. I’m not going to say much about him except as a model to emulate. If you don’t know about him, you should learn.
In the mid-nineteenth century, through his hobby of breeding pea plants, he discovered the rules of genetic inheritance. Not too many years later, his work became the basis for the science of evolution. Mendel saw no contradiction between his studies and his faith, because he viewed his work as an exploration of the universe that God created. He studied how the world worked, and simply accepted the why. If his religion taught him there was a deity who created the world, then describing that world was a form of devotion to his religious faith. Keep this thought in mind.
Much of modern physics deals with both the very large and the very small. Scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) are engaged in the study of how matter and energy work. Not why, but how. They are studying the smallest subatomic particles and the way they interact. Their work has implications for the first seconds of the Universe, the actions and events that occurred when reality was only a few moments old, because that’s when these subatomic particles came into being. Reality works the way it works because it’s in its nature to work that way.
Modern cosmology (the study of universal creation) holds that the Universe came into existence about 13.5 billion years ago, in a massive explosion called the Big Bang. All matter and energy that exists today was created then. Reality began as an undifferentiated fireball of nuclear power. Reality has changed its form since then, coalescing into complex structures and the intricate dance of planets and stars and life and culture, dust and fire and air and people. But all the stuff of which we are made — all the stuff of which everything is made — came into existence then, in a single moment. All of science is nothing more (and nothing less) than a study of what happened after.
On the surface, this story contradicts a literal reading of the creation story in the Bible, which says the world came into being through the work of a conscious deity who created reality basically as we now know it, over the course of a single week. This shaping of reality happened about six thousand years ago. The Texas legislature (and lawmakers in various other parts of our country) want the literal Biblical description to be taught along side (one must suspect, “instead of”) the story told by modern physics. Gregor Mendel might say this is an error. If God created the Universe in a way that looks like Reality is 13.5 billion years old, maybe there’s a reason the Creator wanted us to look at the clues He (or She or They) left.
I’m about to change the subject…except that I’m not.
A few years ago, I wrote a story about children who learn secrets of spirituality from contact with conscious cells within their own bodies. Imagine that the cells that flow through your veins are thinking beings. How would these tiny creatures come to understand the reality of their world? Could they learn to comprehend the hopes and fears, loves and politics, entertainments and religions, of the body of which they were a part? (My first novel, Still Life, was a sequel to that story. Maybe someday I’ll make the original tale available.)
In the 1990s, ecologist James Lovelock proposed the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that the Earth functions as if it was a single coherent living entity. The Earth maintains itself, and sustains life on its surface, through the same sorts of methods and self-referential feedback loops that a living body uses. Imagine for a moment that is is reality, that the Earth itself is a living creature. How could we tell? How could we prove it, one way or the other, whether the Earth was alive and aware? Is there any way we’d be able to understand the thoughts or experiences of a living planet? We’d have as much chance as a white blood cell does to understand human music. Yet, according to Lovelock’s fascinating research, the ecology and geology of the Earth really does function as if it were a single, enormous living body.
If the Earth is alive, it cannot be the only planet which is. So must be every one of a hundred billion worlds in our galaxy — at the very least, every one with a complex ecology and active geology.
We are not aware of the living entity that is the Earth, because of an accident of scale. We are too small in comparison to the Earth to understand its thoughts and dreams, just as a single white blood cell in our bodies would be unable to comprehend what we humans are. We are still more unable to relate to the environment in which the Earth-being exists, whatever culture and ecology and society of which the Earth is a part.
Much of this is wild speculation. But most is mundane physics and ecology. If you aren’t aware of Lovelock’s work, please explore it — his research is solid. Then consider one further factor.
Solar systems are organized into star clusters, and these are collected into galaxies. These, in turn, are bound into galactic clusters, and then into superclusters. Recent sky surveys of superclusters exhibit immense structures of central knots and long filaments, as shown in the image at the start of this article. Material, both matter and energy, flows along these tendrils. The physical rocks on which we stand may have come from a different galaxy, and only fell together to make a planet when they arrived here.
The large-scale structure of the universe resembles nothing so much as the structure of the human brain, with nerves and tendrils connecting each bit with each other bit, and with signals in the form of electromagnetic energy flowing through it all.
Think about that. The Universe, on the largest scale we can perceive, is structured precisely the way our brain is formed. If the physical process of our thoughts and dreams have anything to do with the physical structure of our brains (which psychologists and anatomists claim is indeed the case), then the Universe itself is shaped in a way to duplicate those processes on an immense scale.
When we look at whole-sky surveys of the Universe, we may well be looking at the physical structure of the mind of God. The process of science may be nothing more (or less) than an exploration of the Being within which we are simply tiny cells.
This would mean that funding basic physics and cosmological research is, at root, a religious activity. It is the study of the physiology of God. As a minister, I approve of that. As a science fiction writer, I cannot resist the temptation to explore it. As a software creator, I’m fascinated by recent work on artificial intelligence, in which these processes are simulated and duplicated inside bodies made of silicon.
I’m amused by criticisms of science funding as being “secular humanism”. I’m equally amused by objections from scientists that their work is unrelated to religion. I’m also amused (and frustrated) by religious leaders who object to the exploration of God’s universe by scientific research.
If we are a religious nation, perhaps a Christian nation, as many conservatives claim, then funding scientific research should be at the forefront of their priorities.
- Biology Resources and New Review on Gregor Mendel at Science Magazine (prweb.com)
- Gaia Hypothesis (earthpages.wordpress.com)
- ‘What in the World? The 100 Monkey Moment Approaches’ Trends Issue — Climate change is being accepted in socially significant ways. (futuretrendsblog.wordpress.com)
- Gaia is a tough bitch… (panokroko.wordpress.com)
- Gregor Mendel: my favourite scientist (guardian.co.uk)
About dcpetterson (186 posts)
D. C. Petterson is a novelist and a software consultant in Minnesota who has been writing science fiction since the age of six. He is the author of A Melancholy Humour, Rune Song and Still Life. He lives with his wife, two dogs, two cats, and a lizard, and insists that grandchildren are the reward for having survived teenagers. When not writing stories or software, he plays guitar and piano, engages in political debate, and reads a lot of history and physics texts—for fun. Follow on Twitter @dcpetterson