Saturday, February 02, 2008

The fact of it all

The locus of the tension between science and religion lies precisely in an idea famously articulated by the physicist Steven Weinberg: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

For most of human history, we imagined that we were the point. We resided at the center of a cosmic egg that had been created for us by a benevolent (if sometimes inscrutable) god. The stories we invented and passed down to our children were various, but they all asserted the centrality of self. Each of us lived at a focal point of divine attention. And that was the point.

What a different world has been revealed by science! The human abode is a dust mote in a vast (perhaps infinite) cathedral of galaxies, a random accretion of cosmic matter near an ordinary star. Our bodies and minds are products of 4 billion years of random variation and contingent selection. We have no idea if we are the only efflorescence of consciousness in the universe, but everything we have learned about what the universe is and how it works suggests that we are in no way special. Of the old stories, we have discovered not a whit of confirmation.

No wonder so many of us see science as a threat to our self-esteem. No wonder so many of us choose to live in a state of cognitive dissonance -- with science and faith confined to watertight compartments of our minds. We want to know the point of it all, and science seems to offer only nihilism and despair.

Can science and religion reconciled? Only for those who are willing to forego knowing the point. In her beautiful little book, The Sacred Depths of Nature, microbiologist Ursula Goodenough writes:
The realization that I needn't have answers to the Big Questions, needn't seek answers to the Big Questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distance, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down, to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that become massless at high temperatures, I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries and they caress me, like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.
For the religious naturalist, we are not the point. We are an apparently ephemeral and contingent part of a grand and (at least partly) mysteriously comprehensible fact, and we revel in that factuality, attending reverently to its every particular, accepting with whatever grace we can muster that we need not be the apple of a Creator's eye.