Beyond the science vs religion debate (??)

by Stephanie Chasteen on February 6, 2010

I’ve always been marginally interested in the intersection between science and religion — I think in part because I do have a strong spiritual connection to the world, but through my awe in the workings of the natural world.  I’ve been told by a Christian that I worship the “created” (i.e., the natural world and all its wonders) rather than the Creator (i.e., God).  Yet, I have a deep and abiding respect for other people and their beliefs, especially after my time in a small village in Africa.  I’m not religious, but I am spiritual, and interested in where there are intersections between how I see the world, and how so many others do.    So when I was recently sent  The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (by Adam Frank, an astronomer and writer) to take a look and write about it on the blog, I was curious about it.  It took me a long time to get around to it, but here’s my take on it.

Overall, the book had some really interesting ideas.  The basic premise was that science and religion needn’t be at odds, as they are now (and indeed, the two were not always at “war”) because they are both serving the same basic human desire.  That desire is the urge to understand the world around us and to touch the “divine” or “sacred” — the part of the world that is outside our mundane experience .

The constant fire is the aspiration to know what is essential, what is real, what is true.  It emerges from the elemental experience of the world as sacred.  Mythic narratives are one expression of that aspiration.  Scientific narratives are another.

So, since both science and religion/myth come from the same wellspring origin, they’re not necessarily in conflict.  Regardless of whether you buy his argument (and I bet many religious people have a strong reaction to the equating of religious stories with “myth”), he does have some great history of scientific accounts throughout.  My main beef with the book was that I felt that I got the main point in the first chapter and didn’t get too much out of the rest of the book — it didn’t need to be so long.  But, hey, if you’re grooving on it, I guess you’d be glad that he went into the detail and different examples that he did.

I got particularly interested about halfway through, when he began to describe how both science and religion contain their own narrative structure.  As a science writer and educator, I’ve been drawn to the idea of narrative and story.  The best communication of science, in any venue, is a weaving of a story.  Presentation of data at a conference, an article written for the public, or a lecture in a university — if there is not a narrative arc, your audience is likely to get lost. “There is no meaning in the data by themselves,” he writes.  They’re just numbers, and we seek meaning by looking for patterns in the numbers.

The world gives us data.  We look for patterns.  Then we find a reason for the pattern, and that reason becomes a story.

For example, he describes the currently understood account of how the universe came to be, from the Big Bang to present day.  We create a narrative based on the data and the patterns it presents.  And he describes creation stories from various cultures.  These are two perspectives on the question of “how did we come to be here?”

Myths are stories because that is how human beings create meaning.  Stories are how we structure our response to experiences of the world’s sacred character.

Both creation myths and stories, and scientific accounts of the origin of the universe, bring us outside our mundane experience of the world and closer to the sense of awe of how the world is. Scientific data, for example, takes us that much closer to the sacred by providing us with different sacred experiences, “from satellite images of the earth at night to PET scans of the human brain.”  So, science is a gateway to a deep and moving experience of the world.  I liked this thread very much.

I’m not sure yet what I think of Joseph Campbell, but Adam Frank describes his work about the universality of myths.  For example, there are numerous stories of a great flood that wipes out mankind, due to humanity’s folly.  I’m sure Frank isn’t the first to point this out, but the current climate change concern has this same narrative thread — we will be done in by our own actions.  I’m not trying to cast any doubt on climate change (i.e., it’s not a myth), but recognizing this similarity between the ideas of climate change and flood myths is very interesting to me.  We do have a collective sense of guilt (or, at least people in my demographic do) and of impending doom.  Global warming has become a moral issue — a now important part of that story.

Another aspect that I enjoyed about the book was an idea, towards the end, about how mathematics and myth are both expressions of how our brain works.  Our brain seeks patterns, and thus invented both mathematics and myth.   In this way, he says, “there is no separate truth ‘out there’, no realm of archetypes and Platonic forms.”  So, both myth and mathematics are the brain’s response to the physical world.

For those who want a nice summary of the main ideas of the book, he gives a handy list for those of us who got lost in his meanderings:

  1. Warfare is not the only way to tell the story of science and religion
  2. The emphasis on results in science and religion is misguided and sterile
  3. Religious experience is more important than religious doctrine in thinking about connections with science
  4. Science, in its practice and fruits, manifests hierophanies (sacred character)
  5. Science functions as myth in providing hierophanies through sacred narratives of the cosmos and our place within it
  6. Science’s roots in myth reveal its living connections with spiritual endeavor
  7. Transcendent realities may or may not exist but are not necessary for science to be recognized as a means to apprehend the sacred
  8. The braiding of science and spiritual endeavor by means of their common roots in myth can support a global ethos for the application of science as we pass through the bottleneck of the next century.

So, overall, I liked many of these ideas but wasn’t transported by the book.  Maybe it’s one of the cases of “If you like this sort of thing, it’s the sort of thing you’ll like.”

These publishers were smart.  They sent it to several other bloggers (like Science after Sunclipse and Fine Structure) and the book has its own blog too.  Great way to advertise a book.  So if you want to see what others are saying about it, just Google.


don February 8, 2010 at 6:54 am

Good stuff, if you ever want to guest post, more than happy to give you a back link.


Travis February 10, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Hey Stephanie! Been meaning to post for a while and compliment you on an excellent blog… This post pushed me past the tipping point. 🙂 This post was an excellent, fresh perspective on what can easily be an unpleasant, inflammatory topic. I also loved your “How a scientist becomes a freelance science writer” post of Jan 5 — great advice, tips, and food for thought for a grad student similarly tired of the research gristmill. Been following the blog for about a year now, and always look forward to new posts. Thanks for your time and effort!!!


sciencegeekgirl February 10, 2010 at 7:56 pm

Wow, what a nice comment Travis, thank you so much. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. It’s my baby, and it’s nice to know that there are others who are enjoying what I write! Feel free to comment more often (and it doesn’t always have to be complimentary 🙂

Ron Krumpos March 11, 2010 at 9:58 pm

In 1959, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory, introduced me to mysticism and the universality of the Universe. While many scientists believe that science and religion can co-exist harmoniously, few would grant the same to mysticism.

In “Quantum Questions / Mystical Writings of the World’s Greatest Physicists” (Shambala Publications 2001), Ken Wilber includes lengthy essays by Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Jeans, Planck, Pauli, and Eddington. Albert Einstein, who never claimed to be a mystic, did write:

“The most beautiful and most profound experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.”

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