2011-03-09

Saganic Verses

In this series, I am asking two questions.
(1) Which of the qualities that have at one time or another been identified as qualities of God are qualities of reality as a whole?
(2) May reality thus described reasonably be called "God"?

So far, I have looked only at the first question. In "Part 4: Which Is To Be Master?" I shall turn to the second question.

One of the qualities that is sometimes mentioned as a quality of God is “supernatural.” In part 1, I said that won’t work. The reason it won’t work is not that God/reality isn’t supernatural, but that we cannot make sense of either the proposition,
“Reality is supernatural”
or the proposition,
“Reality is not supernatural.”
Each of those propositions require us to be able to be able to draw a line between supernatural and natural – and we have no way to do that.

Another candidate for a quality of God is: person-like; having knowledge and desires. In part 2, I said that being able sometimes to respond to reality as if it had such person-like attributes is a part of a healthy playful or poetic capacity. It does our hearts good and fosters creative interrelationship with our world to play make-believe from time to time – even if we are self-aware that we’re playing as we do it.

Today I want to consider what would be left – or what would have room to emerge into greater significance -- if we set aside the supernatural and the person-like. What does science tell us about reality – and what descriptors of God apply to a description of reality consistent with science?

Let's begin with some parallels between science, particularly physics, and religion.

They both address the question: What is reality? That is, what’s out there? What’s right here? What’s in here? These are old questions. What we now call science – a particular method of hypothesis, and observation and replicability – emerged only in the 17th century.

What we call religion today – religion as the kind of thing that we could have a first amendment protecting the free exercise of – is also fairly recent. For most of human history, religion and culture were essentially the same thing. If you were an ancient Egyptian, then you did what Egyptians did – including participate in certain rituals, make certain sacrifices, and tell stories about beings called gods. They didn’t divide the practices and teachings of their lives into the religious ones and the nonreligious ones. It wasn’t until the 16th century that serious thought about tolerating religious differences began to emerge in the West, and, along with it, the implication that it was possible to separate certain practices from the rest of a given people’s way of being together. Now we live in a world where we have distinct areas called “science” (recently emerged as a distinct area of culture), and “religion” (recently separated into a distinct area of culture), each addressing that ancient question: What is reality?

For millennia, priests in dark robes have said:
"There is a world beyond what you can see or hear. It is a realm of deep mystery. The normal principles of nature as we experience it do not apply there. And: Trust us. We have plumbed some of this mystery, so believe what we tell you. Do not critically evaluate it for yourself."
Now scientists in white labcoats say:
"There is a world beyond what you can see or hear. Black holes, worm holes, antimatter, dark matter, quantum probability waves, superstrings, parallel universes. It is a realm of deep mystery. The normal principles of nature as we experience it do not apply there. Trust us. We have plumbed some of this mystery, so believe what we tell you.”
Actually, science teachers would love for us all to have a much better grasp on the data and the reasoning that leads to the conclusions of contemporary physics and astrophysics. But since most of us aren’t able to be physics majors on top of the rest of our life, we can’t critically evaluate cutting edge physics research. I, for instance, feel I’m doing really well if I grasp just some of the conclusions reached a century ago in Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Like this:

If you’re standing still, and I zip past you at half the speed of light, and I’m shining a flashlight ahead of me as I go, the speed of the flashlight-beam as you see it emanating from the flashlight is not the combination of our two forward velocities – it’s not 1.5 times the speed of light, as you might think. The beam leaves the flashlight at exactly the speed of light, and receives no boost from the fact that the flashlight itself is going half the speed of light. On the other hand, it might seem that if the flashlight-beam is going forward at the speed of light, and I’m going forward at half the speed of light, then the flashlight-beam is going faster than me by only half the speed of light. But no! I will see the beam receding on ahead of me at the full speed of light. How could that be? Well, it’s because time slows down for me when I’m going that fast.

At that point, most of us have to say, “If you say so.” Most of us can’t get the training to assess these mysteries ourselves, so we end up in a position analogous to our early ancestors’ position in relation to their shamans and priests: we have to take their word for it. Certainly there are significant differences. I trust my astronomy prof a lot more than I trust the TV and radio preachers of conservative Christianity. This is because the scientific community is self-critical and always looking for better answers while priestly communities are self-reinforcing and looking to maintain the same answers.

Nevertheless, scientists deal in things that are, to the rest of us, mysterious and arcane. Quantum mechanics is even more arcane than Einsteinian relativity. I turn to "Dr. Quantum" for a 5-minute sampling of one aspect of this baffling strangeness:

With Newton, and for a couple centuries after, physics was gradually making the world more and more clear and explicable. Or seemed to be. Since Einstein's publication of 1905, physics has been making our reality more and more mysterious and inexplicable. Or seems to be. As the purveyors of the arcane, physicists now occupy a spot analogous to the priests of old.

Having sketched some parallels between the cultural space occupied historically by the community of priests and occupied now by the community of physicists, we may turn now to some parallels between the universe, as described by physics, and God, as described by traditional theology. Both are:
  • profound mystery; 
  • origin; 
  • source of wonder, awe, and beauty; 
  • ultimate context inspiring humility and gratitude; 
  • grounding for ethical commitments. 
These are qualities associated with God, yet do not require being either supernatural or person-like. This is the reality that Carl Sagan called "Cosmos."  More than 30 years ago, Sagan’s PBS series, Cosmos first aired. Its 13 one-hour episodes captivated the minds and hearts and imaginations of a nation. It was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television and has since been broadcast in more than 60 countries and seen by over 600 million people. Carl Sagan (1934-1996) had an obvious passion for discovery, a poetry of wonder – and contacts among engineers who created for him special effects dazzling for the time. In 1980, the cold war was going strong. In a time of a nuclear arms race threatening planetary annihilation, Carl Sagan showed us a vision of another path. In this vision, deep engagement in the investigation of reality manifests and engenders a way of life thrilling and beautiful and also peaceful and just. As the first episode opens, Sagan is standing by the shore of an ocean. The camera pans, moves in, and Sagan begins:
"The cosmos is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be. Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height. We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries. The size and age of the cosmos are beyond ordinary human understanding. Lost somewhere between immensity and eternity is our tiny planetary home, the Earth. For the first time we have the power to decide the fate of our planet and ourselves. This is a time of great danger. But our species is young, and curious, and brave. It shows much promise. In the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the cosmos and our place within it. I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this Cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.
We’re about to begin a journey through the Cosmos. We’ll encounter galaxies and suns and planets; life and consciousness: coming into being, evolving, and perishing. Worlds of ice, and stars of diamond; atoms as massive as suns, and universes smaller than atoms. But it is also a story of our own planet and the plants and animals that share it with us. And, it’s a story about us: how we achieved our present understanding of Cosmos, how the Cosmos has shaped our evolution and our culture – and what our fate may be.
We wish to pursue the truth no matter where it leads. But to find the truth, we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact. The Cosmos is full beyond measure of elegant truths, of exquisite interrelationships, of the awesome machinery of nature. The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. On this shore we have learned most of what we know. Recently, we have waded a little way out, maybe ankle deep, and the water seems inviting. Some part of our being knows, this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can. Because the Cosmos is also within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.”
We ask, as our ancestors asked 100,000 years ago, what is reality? We want to be able to respond to it effectively, to get our needs met. Something in us would also like to reciprocate: to befriend the ultimate – space and time and all the
“gas and dust and stars – billions upon billions of stars” (Sagan).
We want to live in our world, our universe, in a way that is awake to its beauty, that evokes our gratitude, that shows us how very, very small we are so that, from such humility, we can loosen the bonds of ego defenses – yet which also gives us the significance of connection to something wider, bigger, grander. We want to know how to live in awe and wonder. For most of human history, we interpreted reality as person-like because brains built like ours are inclined to look for the traits of personhood: belief, desire, intentionality. We see others as having their own beliefs and desires, and this is crucial for interpreting their behavior and getting along with them. So it’s natural for us to look for beliefs and desires in the universe itself. And for millennia, we imagined that we found them there.

The most natural path to humility and gratitude for beings like us is to be grateful and humble toward some person-like entity. That’s the most natural path; it is not the only possible path. Four centuries ago, science was being born as one part of our culture, while religion was being separated from the rest of our culture and separated into its own part. In Cosmos, and throughout his life, Carl Sagan showed us, and embodied, a way to bring them together. Though others have pointed that direction before and after him, no one has done so as consistently and thoroughly. Sagan’s example showed us a way to be connected to a source for beauty, gratitude, humility, and wonder, a source that gives meaning to our lives and joy to our days and purpose to our work.

 We cannot all be professional scientists, but we can all be scientific in the sense of having respect for the scientific process, knowledge of the more significant findings, an interest in the general directions of current research, and an appreciation of the "big picture" unfolding through that research. Sagan showed us a way we can all be both scientific, in this sense, and also religious. Sagan's science and his religion did not conflict. Nor were they distinct areas irrelevant to each other. They were the same thing. The impulse that has led so many to embrace one dogma or another, just so we can believe we have some kind of handle on what’s out there – that same impulse can instead be directed to embrace a process. Instead of latching on to one set of beliefs, we can place our faith in a process of continually revising beliefs. Sagan said:
“We are born to delight in the world. We are taught to distinguish our preconceptions from the truth. Then new worlds are discovered as we decipher the mysteries of the Cosmos.”
Sagan recognized,
“We humans long to be connected to our origins, so we create rituals.”
He then added,
“Science is another way to express this longing – it also connects us with our origins.”
The textbooks and equations of physics are not inherently so inspiring. It takes scientist-poets like Sagan to show us that it is possible to weave the findings of astronomy and physics into a story that connects us to our origins, that, indeed, as he said,
“stirs us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a great height.”
Groups and communities can now take Sagan’s cue, and encourage one another in being inspired together by the vastness of space, the beauty of the galaxies, and the mind-boggling first millionth of a second after the big bang. Another function of religion is to ground and yield an ethic. To befriend our world, we need both a sense of what it is and how to be and act with it. Sagan’s Cosmos flowed seamlessly from the talk of atoms and stars to talk of right and justice:
“If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth.”
He then spoke to us as the prophets of Judea of old spoke:
“Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice is clearly the universe or nothing.”
It is a function of religion to expresses and inform our loyalties and obligations beyond ourselves to something larger. Thus Sagan is speaking religiously in these concluding words of the 13th and final episode of Cosmos:
“Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”
Sagan avoids the word “God” – after all, he’s on PBS – yet when he says “Cosmos” he is pointing to a source, a connection to our origin, an ultimate context and basis for meaning and value, beauty and mystery. He is pointing to what humans have for millienia pointed to with the word “God” (or with non-English words that translate as the English word “God”). Is it fair to say that Sagan’s Cosmos is God, albeit neither supernatural nor personal? Or does the word “God” necessarily refer to a person-like entity? To this semantic, yet important, question I turn in the next and final part.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Science, God, and the Universe."
Next: Part 4: "Which Is To Be Master?"
Previous: Part 2: "Getting Personal"
Beginning: Part 1: "Not Supernatural"