Friday, 16 December 2011

Still searching for answers

Just read a very interesting article on the search for God in the Universe over at The Independent. There are plenty of articles out there that address the challenge of combining theology and science, but this is a particularly good example, addressing the various approaches and difficulties in just enough depth for an informative layman's article of reasonable length. There are also some reader comments that are worth checking out.

It's an intriguing ongoing debate. While I would consider myself an atheist - or, at least, a skeptical agnostic - I see no reason whatsoever why a scientist cannot also be religious. While the above article focusses on Christian scientists (not to be confused with Christian Scientists), there is no reason not to discuss the nature of objective, empirical science when applied to practicing Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, et al. I certainly find it impossible to correlate a rational view of the Universe with a literal interpretation of the Bible, or of any religious text. The twin creation stories of Genesis (for there are two, rather clumsily cobbled together - it's easy to see the join) are patently absurd, stories of an ancient people that have no place today beyond historical and mythological study. It's quite terrifying that there are still many, many schools in th United States that refuse to teach Darwinian evolution but which preach Biblical Creationism as fact.

And yet, there's nothing to stop a scientist from believing in a created Universe, or prevent a Christian, Muslim or Jew from accepting the tenets of empirical science. A literal interpretation of Old Testament stories is out of the question, but there is still room for a more developed, modern view of these religions, which many people worldwide ascribe to. I know less about pantheistic faiths, such as Hinduism, so cannot really comment on how compatible these would be with such an approach, although I'd be very interested to learn. Animistic faiths, still followed by many tribal groups throughout Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas, are in many ways highly compatible, worshipping, essentially, the laws of nature.

Personally, I find it difficult to believe in the Christian God, for the simple reason that the Universe, in all its complexity and splendour, is evidently not perfect, and I fail to see how an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent God could create a flawed creation, filled with suffering and basic errors. Too many children are boon with terrible, agonising genetic diseases for me to ever accept such a belief. However, that doesn't preclude the possibility of some form of Creator God.

Humanity is going to be searching for explanations to the Universe for however long it survives, and I doubt we'll ever really find them. Not only do we strive for explanations, but also for purpose. I find myself quite comfortable with the notion that I am a highly developed ape, whose consciousness and personality are nothing more than a series of complex electrochemical reactions. I don't believe that such a view diminishes me or humanity in any way. I also understand, however, why others do, and require some greater meaning in life. I also remain quite aware of the limitations of science; while science answers the how?, it struggles with the why? I've had long discussions before with Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not believe in evolution. While I accept evolution as the likely truth, due to the overwhelming evidence, I agree with them when they tell me that it fails to explain why life exists. In fact, it fails to explain the origin of life, for science still hasn't found a satisfying answer for this (although one day it might, and I hope that it does). This can be extended to the existence of the Universe as a whole. I have no problem with the Weak Anthropic Principle, but even accpeting that this is just the way the Universe happens to be doesn't explain why there's a Universe at all. Even accepting the existence of a Multiverse - which is a possibility, but certainly not yet anywhere near being regardable as a fact - doesn't hold an answer, for we're simply swapping one word for another (really, it's just playing with the definition of 'universe').

The article above references the works of Paul Davies, a Professor of Physics and Natural Philosophy. Earlier this year, I read his book The Goldilocks Enigma, aka The Cosmic Jackpot. I found it all fascinating, but in later chapters, I felt that his rigourous scientific approach was veering into outright blind faith. Davies has extrapolated a view of the Universe that explains all current physical theory, while at the same time making the existence of God and consciousness a vital component. All very intriguing stuff, but nonetheless essentially a creative work of science fiction. I'm happy for him to believe that, but there's no real argument that it's true.

It all comes down to the fundamental difference between science and religion. Religion decrees the truth, and stretches, or ignores, the facts to fit it. Science, on the other hand, amends its view of the truth to fit the fact. When it fails to do so, and acts like religion, it becomes poor science. We can see this sort of science throughout the scientific community, where certain respected authorities will refuse to amend their views in light of new evidence. We could even see the ongoing quest for the Higgs boson at CERN as such an example. While the Higgs may exist, it very well may not, and it looks like there will soon be an answer, one way or another. The Higgs was proposes as a way to force the Standard Model of particle physics to fit the observed data. It's a fudge factor. If the Higgs doesn't show up, then a great many physicists are going to have to drastically alter their views of the fundamentals of matter. A similar problem is being faced with those recent neutrinos, which seem to insist on breaking the laws of physics and travelling faster than light (and on a side note, if I read one more article which refers to them as neutrons, I'm going to scream).

At the heart of it, there's a big difference between science and faith, and that is that scientists are continually trying to prove themselves wrong. Major religions rarely amend their views - although not never, I hasten to add. The Catholic Church has embraced many scientific ideas that it originally vehemntly refused to accept. However, there are some that say that following science is simply another form of belief. While I feel it's not quite as simple as that, there's an element of truth there. Every scientist has a different view of the Universe, and for many, that includes God.

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