Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Simplicity Followed By Awe

"Things used to be simple. There was one universe, and our galaxy was one among billions within it."

This is the first sentence from Marcelo Gleiser's column on NPR entitled "Multiverse Metaphysics".

If only things were simple! To understand that our planet lies in a solar system situated in a galaxy with more solar systems alone than we can imagine, and then - that there are billions of galaxies in our this so simple after all? I think about the controversies surrounding Galileo and Kepler in their day, wondering what scientific discoveries will ascend from heresy to simplicity in the next 500 years?

I think about Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" TV series. I think about his wonder and fascination toward the magnificent intricacies of nature. A realization strikes me - awe is far more important than simplicity. I must resist simplicity.

A few days ago, I posted a column by Adam Frank of NPR on Facebook explaining how poetry can reconcile science and the sacred. Frank's column argues powerfully that science is a direct route to experiencing the sacred. This sacred awe is vitally important for the vitality of human life.

Because of its essential role in creating meaning for our lives, awe is fundamental to our shared humanity. To feel awe can be more important than understanding. Further, awe undermines understanding - to engage in awe is to admit a lack of understanding and to admit new possibilities amidst a mysterious unknown. One of my friends on Facebook, after I posted Frank's article on science and the sacred, complimented me for recognizing - as a non-religious person - that science and the sacred are compatible.

I have struggled to respond to that compliment, because I cannot accept it wholeheartedly. While I agree with my friend that science and the sacred are compatible, I do not agree that science and religion are necessarily compatible. There is a stark difference between the religion of awe and mystery, and the religion of simplicity and understanding. I believe that the first kind of religion is entirely compatible with science, but that the second kind of religion hopelessly distorts and undermines science.

To be fair, I also believe that the nonreligious can abuse excessive certainty - that a fundamentalist confidence in one's own understanding is just as dangerous to science as religious dogma. Any kind of strict adherence to simplicity annihilates both true science and true spirituality.

All too often, organized religion asserts a monopoly on fact and truth - while it asserts that there is only one way to live - and asserts that the course of existence is pre-determined and set by divine law. Science asserts, by searching for answers, that the world is unknown to it - while evolutionary theory demonstrates compellingly that life is a flowing and diverse tide, responding in different ways to a diversity of pressures and dangers - and asserts that existence can change rapidly and has done so constantly throughout its history.

There is no ducking the differences between science and organized religion, which have developed as organized religion has denounced and opposed science. I believe that it is far better to confront those differences than it is to leave them unaddressed in silence. However, confrontation does not have to become arrogance - the best confrontation occurs in humility, when people confront what they do not or perhaps cannot know, and a find a way to live within that mystery. Both true science and true spirituality actively confront that void and derive meaning from that mystery.

Where organized religion and dogmatic rationalism insist on muting mystery, disparaging differences, and attacking ambiguity, I must walk another path. I must seek other answers. I leave the road of simplicity to travel the road of awe.

1 comment:

James said...

Who's trying to get rid of the awe and mystery of creation? I would argue that that's more a problem of scientists than religious adherents. What could do a better job of taking the awe out of existence than to claim that we're all just matter in motion? I'm glad that you stand in awe of the universe, but it comes as someone who's always interpreted religion that way.