Editor’s Note: This coming school year, Tennessee public schools will be operating under a new law that prohibits the punishment of teachers for discussing the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” of global warming, evolution and the chemical origins of life. Critics warn that the law will encourage teachers to introduce religious views of such scientific theories.
In today’s Faith in Memphis section, noted scientist and best-selling novelist Alan Lightman, a Memphis native, examines the fundamental differences between the wonders of science and religion and determines there is need and room for both. Members of the Faith in Memphis panel respond.
This past April, as the magnolias were coming to full bloom, Tennessee adopted a new law protecting teachers who allow their students to challenge evolution, climate change and other scientific theories.
Critical questioning of any body of knowledge is always a healthy activity. But thoughtful critics of the new law worry that it will tacitly give permission for schools to treat creationism and evolution on equal footing and once more confuse religion and science. All of which raises the perennial issue of the boundaries between science and religion, the two greatest forces that have shaped human civilization.
So what exactly are those boundaries? What are the different kinds of knowledge in science and in religion? And how do we come by those different kinds of knowledge?
These are not easy questions, and I have struggled with them for much of my life. For many years, I have lived in the world of science, as a physicist, and I have been trained in the methods and logic of science. I have also lived in the world of the arts and humanities, as a novelist, and I understand that we have beliefs and experiences that exist beyond the reach of rational analysis.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of knowledge in
science: the properties of physical things, and the laws that govern those physical things — what we call “the laws of nature.”
We know the size and mass of golf balls. We know the sounds made by nightingales. We know the colors of sunlight. We might say that the color of sunlight appears yellowish to our eyes, with a bit of red, but a far more accurate and reliable method of determining the colors of sunlight is to pass that light through a prism and to use an electronic device to measure the amount of red light, the amount of yellow light, the amount of green light, and so on. As much as possible, science tries to determine the properties of things in ways that can be repeated over and over, always giving the same result.
The laws of nature are more abstract. They are mathematical rules about how matter and energy behave. An example is the law of gravity. Discovered by Isaac Newton in the 17th century, the law of gravity quantifies the force between objects based on their masses and distance apart. With knowledge of the law of gravity, for example, we can predict how long it will take our golf ball to hit the ground when dropped from a height of 10 feet, or any other height, to an accuracy of many decimal places. We could also predict how long it would take the same golf ball to hit the dust when dropped on the moon, or on Mars. One of the central tenets of science is that the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe.
The history of science has been a process of gradually discovering and revising the laws of nature. Often, we discover new laws by making guesses, inspired by our conceptions of simplicity or beauty or analogy with older laws. But then we must test those guesses against experiment. Some lovely guesses, such as the idea that the orbits of planets are circular, have been proven wrong by careful observation and experiment. As we develop new measuring devices, make better experiments, and reconceive our ideas of scientific principles, we constantly update and revise what we hold to be the laws of nature.
At the present time, in the year 2012, we certainly do not know all the laws of nature, and it is a good bet that most of our current formulations of those laws will be revised in the future. Yet the great majority of scientists believe that a complete and final set of laws governing all physical phenomena exists, and that we are making continuing progress toward discovery of those laws.
Let me turn now to religion. In his landmark study of religion, “Varieties of Religious Experience” (1902), the great Harvard philosopher William James described religion in this way: “Were one to characterize religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” As I will discuss shortly, the central role of belief in James’ statement makes religion a fundamentally personal and subjective experience, which distinguishes it from science.
I would suggest that there are two kinds of knowledge in religion: the transcendent experience, and the content of sacred religious books, such as the Hebrew Bible of Judaism, the New Testament of Christianity, the Quran of Islam, and the Upanishads of Hinduism. Some religious leaders suggest that we should call religious knowledge “faith” or “intuitive knowledge” or “wisdom.”
The transcendent experience — the immediate and vital personal experience of being connected to some unseen divine order — is beautifully described by a clergyman in James’ book:
“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep — the deep that my own struggle had opened up within, being answered by the unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with Him who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect union of my spirit with His. … Since that time no discussion that I have heard of the proofs of God’s existence has been able to shake my faith. Having once felt the presence of God’s spirit, I have never lost it again for long. My most assuring evidence of his existence is deeply rooted in that hour of vision in the memory of that supreme experience … .”
The extremely personal and immediate nature of the transcendent experience described here is what gives it power and force. The clergyman who underwent the moment on the hilltop has no doubt of what he felt, and that remembered feeling represents a kind of truth, a knowledge of his own being and his felt connection to the cosmos. No other person can negate that personal experience. And no matter how the clergyman tries to analyze his experience with science or theology or references to sacred books, the experience is ultimately beyond analysis. The truth and power of it lies in the subjective experience itself.
As James writes, “Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translations into formulas.” The strong sense of the Infinite, the belief in an unseen order in the world, the feeling of being in the presence of something divine are all personal. Qualities of this experience cannot be quantified or measured like readings on a voltmeter, and thus cannot be transferred to others. The qualities must be directly experienced by the individual in unique moments.
Although science is practiced by individual scientists, with their individual feelings and passions, the essence of science is the impersonal and the disembodied. The equations that can be rederived by any graduate student trained in the methods of science. The experiments that can be reproduced in any properly equipped laboratory in the world. Except for the field of psychology, science concerns itself with the world outside of our minds. Science is fundamentally an impersonal activity.
The sacred books of religion, another kind of religious knowledge, are sometimes treated as grand metaphors, sometimes as literal truth, sometimes as teachings of inspired human beings, sometimes as the direct words of God. Part of the content of the sacred books, such as the Ten Commandments or the advice of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, are prescriptions about how to live a moral life, or philosophies about meaning and value. Other content, such as the exodus of the Jews from Egypt around 1300 B.C. or the Resurrection of Christ, deal with historical events. One can accept the statements about historical events without questioning or testing — in other words, without proof — in which case we might call that subjective knowledge, or perhaps belief.
Science also engages in a few beliefs without proof, such as the belief that the laws of nature are the same everywhere in the universe and that those laws are never violated, but the number of such beliefs is extremely small, and they are quite general. As an alternative to belief, one can test historical statements in the sacred books against the same kind of evidence used by historians: authenticated documents and eyewitness reports written at the time, material relics that can be dated, the context of related events, plausibility, and so forth. Finally, if one considers the content of the sacred books to be metaphorical, then neither belief nor proof is needed. We are enlightened and uplifted by the narratives themselves, just we are by “The Tempest” of Shakespeare or the “Eroica” by Beethoven.
It is sometimes useful to distinguish between a physical universe and a spiritual universe, with the physical universe being the constellation of all physical matter and energy that scientists study, and the spiritual universe being the “unseen order” that James refers to, the territory of religion, the nonmaterial and eternal things that most humans have believed throughout the ages.
The physical universe is subject to rational analysis and the methods of science. The spiritual universe is not. All of us have had experiences that are not subject to rational analysis. Besides religion, much of our art and our values and our personal relationships to other people spring from such experiences. I would argue, again, that the distinction between the spiritual and physical universes closely aligns with the axes of the personal and the impersonal. Events in the physical universe can be recorded with rulers and clocks and lie outside our bodies. Those measurements provide the evidence. Although many of us believe in a spiritual universe that hovers beyond our own personal being, the evidence of that universe is highly personal.
The physical and spiritual universes each have their own domains and their own limitations. The question of the age of planet Earth, for example, falls squarely in the domain of science, since there are reliable tests we can perform, such as using the rate of disintegration of radioactive rocks, to determine a definitive answer. Such questions as “What is the nature of love?” or “Is it moral to kill another person in time of war?” or “Does God exist?” lie outside the bounds of science, but fall well within the realm of religion.
I am impatient with people, like Richard Dawkins, who try to disprove the existence of God with scientific arguments. Science can never prove or disprove the existence of God, because God, as understood by most religions, is not subject to rational analysis. I am equally impatient with people who make statements about the physical universe that violate physical evidence and the known laws of nature. Knowingly or not, we all depend on the consistent operation of the laws of nature in the physical universe day after day. For example, when we board an airplane, allow ourselves to be lifted thousands of feet in the air, and hope to land safely at the other end. Or when we stand in line to receive a vaccination against the next season’s influenza.
Some people believe that there is no distinction between the spiritual and physical universes, no distinction between the inner and the outer, between the subjective and the objective, between the miraculous and the rational. I need such distinctions to make sense of my spiritual and scientific lives. For me, there is room for both a spiritual universe and a physical universe, just as there is room for both religion and science. Each universe has it own power. Each has it own beauty and mystery. A Presbyterian minister recently said to me that science and religion share a sense of wonder. I agree.
Alan Lightman, born and raised in Memphis, is a theoretical physicist and adjunct professor of humanities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including “Einstein’s Dreams.” His new novel, “Mr. g,” is the story of creation as told by God.