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Science and Religion: An Exploration

David R. Burton

Religion without science is blind. Science without religion is lame.

-- Albert Einstein

I think that the sentiment expressed by Albert Einstein that religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame is absolutely correct. I also think that both the scientific and religious communities tend to reject this insight. This paper explores the efficacy of science and religion as means of finding truth and understanding. Specifically, the aim is to show that neither the scientific method nor religious insight are sufficient standing alone to address the fundamental questions about the human condition. In contrast to the protestations of many practitioners of both science and religion, the two are complementary and form an integrated, holistic means of improving our understanding of the universe and our role in it.

We will take a quick tour of some of the most intractable issues in religion, philosophy and science. The paper will delineate what seemingly can and cannot be accomplished by scientific and religious inquiry and examine some ways that insights from the two disciplines can be integrated to attain results that neither can achieve separately. Then, I will indulge in some speculative explorations that seem to me a tentatively satisfying synthesis of the two fields of inquiry.

The attempt to achieve a synthesis of science and religion is by no means a new task. In July, 1914 in his essay Mysticism and Logic Bertrand Russell wrote

the greatest men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of science and mysticism: the attempt to harmonize the two was what made their life, and what always must, for all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.

Yet, at the time Russell was engaged in an effort with his colleague and friend Alfred North Whitehead to lay a purely rational or objective basis for mathematical and scientific truths, an effort, as I will discuss, that foundered on the shoals of Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Karl Popper’s falsification doctrine and other work.

At the dawn of this century, religion stood in general retreat before the onslaught of science. Religion and science were viewed as largely, if not entirely, incompatible belief systems. The promise of the scientific method seemed to relegate religion to a peripheral place. Religion was associated with a backwards, antiquated, almost superstitious and distinctly non-modern world view. Today, at the twilight of the 20th century, we are less enamored with the promise of technology and a wide variety of means of spiritual expression are making a distinct comeback. More and more people have come to realize that science is a powerful method, a powerful tool but that when it comes to the really fundamental questions, questions about right and wrong, questions about the meaning and purpose of life, science is silent. Those seeking guidance about how one should live one’s life will find little in science.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published his theory of special relativity. 11 years later in 1916, he published his theory of general relativity. During the early part of this century, Paul Dirac, Erwin Shödinger, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and others developed quantum mechanics. Relativity and quantum mechanics replaced the classical paradigm which proved to be just a reasonable approximation of deeper and more complex physical laws. This new physics had practical technological progeny including nuclear power, nuclear weapons, transistors, superconductors and a host of other technologies. But is also had a number of fundamental philosophical implications that any attempt to explain the universe and our role in it must engage. Here we will focus on two issues. The implications of general relativity regarding the birth of the universe and the implications of quantum mechanics regarding the limits of our knowledge and our ideas about causation.

Relativity has many facets. The one that is important to our discussion is what it has to say about gravitation. We know from classical physics that two objects with mass tend to attract one another. We call this attractive force gravity. A relativistic world is four rather than three dimensional. There are three space dimensions and time which collectively are referred to as space-time. Relatively predicts that massive objects bend or warp space-time. Phenomenon predicted by this aspect of the theory were empirically verified very early on. It was shown, for example, that the sun distorted space-time in its region and that light rays in the vicinity of the sun appeared bent. Similarly, at the subatomic level where the impact of mass can be quite dramatic, the theory’s predictions have been verified Using Newtonian mechanics, scientists hypothesized a planet -- Vulcan -- closer to the sun than Mercury to explain the precession of Mercury’s perihelion. As we all know from Star Trek, the planet wasn’t there but elsewhere in the galaxy. But the theory of relativity explained the advance of the perihelion of the planet Mercury. The slowing of time for clocks on aircraft, rockets and satellites are in agreement with the theory’s predictions. It is an empirically robust theory.

The relativistic equations imply that objects could be massive enough that nothing could escape their gravitational pull, including light. These objects -- called singularities -- would, in fact, collapse in on themselves to the point where they would have mass but no dimension. The radius of the sphere about the singularity from which neither mass nor energy can escape is called the event horizon. Any mass or energy that passed the event horizon of the singularity would be invisible to those outside of the event horizon. These singularities have come to be known as Black Holes. Einstein didn’t like this implication of his theory. In his book, The Meaning of Relativity, he wrote that "in my opinion singularities must be excluded [as a possibility]. While we cannot directly observe black holes, we can observe the effects of non-visible massive objects. In fact, we have observed invisible objects that are massive and sucking up enormous amounts of mass from visible objects. Thus, the black hole prediction is generally regarded as confirmed.

Which brings us to the birth of the universe. Physicists generally believe that the universe started with a Big Bang. The reasons for the wide support of this theory are several fold. First, the universe cannot have existed forever because of the Second Law of Thermodynamics which states that that entropy (disorder) in a closed system is always increasing. What this basically means is that there is a limited amount of order and that over time the universe will run out of steam. In time, it would simply become homogenous of uniform temperature.

Second, the universe is observed to be steadily expanding. Working backwards, it can be calculated that it has been expanding for roughly 15 billion years from a single point. But there are a lot of problems with the math on this since the observed expansion rate is inconsistent with the amount of observed matter. The observed rate of expansion requires that about 90 percent of the matter in the universe be dark, basically invisible matter.

Third, the amount cosmic background radiation observed is consistent with the predictions of the Big Bang theory.

The biggest problem with the Big Bang theory is that a "small" object as massive as the universe would be a black hole. Nothing could escape. The laws of physics as currently understood say that the Big Bang could not have happened. Thus, science has a conundrum. The universe must have had a beginning by virtue of the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the fact that it is observed to be expanding as if it started at a specific place with a Big Bang but science says that it could not have happened. Stated a little differently, as you run the clock backwards using the laws of physics there comes a time when the laws of physics breakdown.

Fundamentally, the act of creation of the universe -- the very fact that we are here -- is a violation of the laws of physics as we know them. There is some hope of overcoming this conundrum by postulating a space-time continuum with more than four dimensions. The observed universe can evidently be explained by 11 or 26 dimension space-time. What those other dimensions are is impossible to say at this point. But even in n-dimensional space the source of the laws of nature that give us the structure of the universe -- this universe -- is problematic. Where did they come from and why are they the way they are?

Classical physics thought of the world as a sort of giant clock. If you had sufficient information about the state of a system (including the universe, which is just a big system) you could in principle use the laws of physics to predict the future state of the system. Now you might not have enough information to accurately predict the future but in principle the future was pre-ordained by the past. The algorithm that connects the past to the present to the future was the laws of physics.

Quantum mechanics changed that. Formalized as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it was now held that in principle it was impossible to know with certainty both the momentum and position of a particle. The more accurately you measured momentum the less accurately you would know position and vice versa. Now this can be interpreted as just a measurement problem. At the subatomic level, the act of measuring affects the particle. But physicists have generally adopted a differing view, known as the Copenhagen interpretation. The world at its most fundamental level is viewed by the vast majority of physicists as being extremely uncertain.

Quantum mechanics involves a lot of weirdness, as Paul Davies and John Gribbin called it in their book The Matter Myth. Imagine an experiment where a light source shines through two slits in a wall. On the other side of the wall is a screen that records the photons as they hit the screen. If both slits are open, you get an interference pattern that is like that found with sound waves and other wave phenomenon. Where waves arrive in step they reinforce each other and where they arrive out of step, they cancel each other out. This leads to a series of lines on the screen. If, however, you send many photons through one at a time, you still get an interference pattern as if two waves were interacting. This ranks as strange because the photon can only go through one slit at a time and cannot "know" that the other slit exists. And, indeed, if only one slit is open, the interference pattern does not materialize. More fundamentally, if you measure which slit the particle goes through then the interference pattern disappears. The same holds true with respect to matter, electrons for example.

This is explained by postulating a series of ghost photons or electrons that take different paths to the screen. There are various probabilities attached to each ghost hitting the screen. These ghosts interfere with each other and produce the interference pattern. However, if we observe the electron before it hits the screen to determine which slit it goes through all of the ghosts disappear and their becomes only one "real" electron. The wave function that represents the various quantum probability collapses to one real electron. It is viewed as logical error to assume that unobserved electrons go through one or the other slits on their way to the screen. The particles are not real in an important sense unless observed. This is known as the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics after Neils Bohr a Danish physicists that was a pioneer in quantum mechanics.

Einstein, it should be said, rejected the Copenhagen interpretation with his famous dictum that "God does not play dice with the Universe." He preferred a more classically deterministic view of the universe and believed that quantum mechanics must be a manifestation of a deeper reality. But his rejection of the now dominant view is considered as one of his lesser moments.

Incidentally, quantum mechanical theorists are now trying to explain the Big Bang in terms of a quantum mechanical event. The universe was, presumably, infinitely small prior to the Big Bang. Thus quantum mechanical principles would apply. It is possible, they argue, that a quantum mechanical fluctuation gave rise to the universe. But even granting that proposition, it still does not explain from whence came quantum mechanical fluctuations and the other laws of nature.

Now let us look at the implications of all of this for us. Whether Einstein was right or the current interpretation of quantum mechanics is right, free will is a casualty. In the classical deterministic physical world the past determines the future. The neurons in our brain fire as a direct result of the physical state in a previous period of time. Subject to the problem of insufficient information, the future can be predicted by a rigorous application of the laws of physics. All that quantum mechanics really does is replace classical determinism with a statistical function.

Whether our actions, thoughts and feelings are a function of classical determinism or quantum indeterminance, we are not, according to science, free in the sense that we mean when we talk about free will in religion, philosophy or law. Whether our actions are function of physical states in a previous period or the function of random quantum events, in no meaningful sense do we have a choice about our actions.

Science stands for the proposition that humans are automatons with no more feel will than dogs or rocks. Just as in the rest of the universe, the initial condition at time zero determines the state at time zero plus one. The laws of nature, whether in the classical sense or the quantum mechanical random function sense, represent the function or algorithm relating time zero to time zero plus one. There is no room in this analysis for an intervening human will.

There have been various attempts over the years to characterize random as free since random is not deterministic. But random is random, random is not free. In religion, philosophy and law, freedom and free will means that the agent is free within certain physically determined bounds to choose to do A or not to do A. The freedom to choose in turn means that the agent’s choice can have moral content and can have meaning. The choice can be right or wrong and it can have meaning or purpose.

Free will in some sense implies causes of physical action that are not physical. Religion and much of metaphysics has postulated a soul or other force that serves this function. There is, however, a growing scientific and philosophical literature addressing these sorts of issues. Chaos theory and various philosophers of science have argued in effect that the sum of a whole system can be greater than the sum of its parts. A system can have emergent properties that are not a function of the constituent parts of the system. Thus, man or a computer network or other complex systems can have properties that are not predictable or are not a function of the laws of nature as they apply to the constituent parts of the system. Philosophy of science is grappling with the meaning of concepts such as awareness, intelligence, consciousness. The fruit of these labors may prove to be a scientific means of getting closer to what it means to be human.

Scientific notions of causality are different from philosophical ideas of causality. In most formal science, you will not hear A causes B. Instead you will hear one of two kinds of expression. Those working in empirical fields will tend to say that A and B are correlated. This does not necessary imply A causes B. Theory tends to state relations such as E = mc2 or F = ma. These formulas are statements of relation but not of causation. Religion and philosophy, in contrast, assume that A can cause B. In particular, they assume that a person can exercise free will and cause effects.

If we do not have a choice, if we do not have free will, there can be no such thing as morality. It makes no sense to hold a person accountable for his actions if he either had no choice about his actions or his actions were determined by a quantum role of the dice. In this view, we cannot behave morally or immorally anymore than can or desktop computer or the sidewalk. We are, in the lexicon of physics just a more complex state machine. Nothing more. Our brains contain more complex algorithms but are not different in kind from Word for Windows. Most of us, I think, will find this aspect of science deeply troubling. I believe it is wrong.

Science cannot explain the existence of the Universe. Science cannot explain free will, although most of us by introspection would agree that we possess free will. But there are other, less obvious, limitations on scientific knowledge.

Science and indeed mathematics are built on assumed, unprovable axioms. Scientific and mathematic propositions can as a rule be falsified but strictly speaking prove that something is true. What science can do is offer testable hypotheses that can be falsified.

The Austrian physicist and philosopher Karl Popper has done very compelling work arguing that statements are not meaningful unless they can be falsified. If the statements are logical statements as in mathematics, then they will take the form of Given A, then B must follow. But these statements are silent as to the truth of the given A. If the statements are meaningful scientific statements then they will be testable and subject to falsification. They can be proved false, as in not in accordance with the observed facts. They cannot be proved true. Science then cannot provide us with truth with a capital T.

A theory that has been subjected to numerous, rigorous attempts at falsification and has not been proved false is a strong theory. It is not necessarily a true theory. Classical mechanics was subjected to numerous tests and held up famously until the 20th century when it was supplanted by relativity and quantum mechanics. Classical physics proved to be merely an approximation of more complex laws. Modern physics will probably be falsified in the future and replaced by better theories. But we can never be sure that we got it right. We can only be sure that we got it wrong. It is through falsification and attempted falsification that scientific knowledge grows. But the truth with a capital T is elusive in principle.

Mathematics, it has been said, is the language of the universe. It has a beauty and elegance that rivals the best that art has created. The Greeks who founded mathematics in the sense that we think of it today, saw this beauty and held up mathematics as a discipline singularly worthy of study. They saw mathematics as an expression of timeless truths about the universe. Indeed, their view of mathematics as the discovery of objective truth was widely held until quite recently. It was thought that mathematics could serve as the key which would unlock the secrets of the universe. And indeed to an impressive degree they have been proved right.

Principia Mathematica written by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell represents the high tide of this view. They tried to in effect prove all mathematics form a set of objectively true axioms. This enterprise foundered once an for all with the publication in 1931 of a paper by Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel. Gödel showed that in any formal system adequate for number theory there exists an undecidable formula that is not provable and whose negation is not provable. A corollary of this theorem is that the consistency of a formal system adequate for number theory cannot be proved within the system. Gödel’s work is generally accepted and stands for the proposition that mathematics cannot be proven true. There are always unprovable assumptions that need to be made or more accurately mathematics cannot be formalized within one system.

Gödel’s results were more dramatic in the context of the time. Euclidean geometry is based on five axioms or postulates that were generally regarded as self-evidently true. In his Elements, the fifth Euclidean postulate defined parallel straight lines such that "parallel straight lines are straight lines which, being in the same plane and being produced indefinitely in both directions, do not meet one another in either direction." In the 19th century N.I. Lobachevsky, Farkas Bolyai and later G.F.B. Riemann developed different types of non-Euclidean geometries that dispensed with Euclid’s fifth "parallel postulate" or its 18th century substitute called Playfair’s postulate. These geometries were regarded as merely theoretical curiosities until Einstein’s theory of relativity and empirical tests of the theory showed that actual space-time was consistent with Riemannian geometry and not with Euclidean geometry.

Conventional mathematics took one on the chin in the early 20th century when physics showed that non-Euclidean geometry was a better representation of the physical world than the Euclidean geometry that had been assumed to be true. Then Gödel came along to prove that no system could be objectively true in the sense of being provable.

There are then two basic things that science is incapable in principle of explaining: our existence and free will. The laws of physics say that the Big Bang could not have happened. The laws of physics, no matter what the interpretation of quantum mechanics, are incompatible with free will as it is understood in religion, in philosophy, in law and by the average person. Moreover, mathematics -- the language of science -- is on much softer ground than is generally supposed. Mathematics is a series of highly useful and beautiful relations given certain axioms but it is not objectively true.

Philosophy, I think, occupies a middle ground between science and religion. It enables use to use reason to explore the logical implications of the choice of various first principles. It also enables us to use reason to determine if a philosophical, scientific or even religious system of thought is self-consistent. It can help us identify when recourse to first principles or unprovable axioms is necessary. The study of philosophy is central to, in Aristotle’s words, leading the examined life. Philosophy, therefore, can and should play a vital role in clarifying our thinking. But philosophy does not have religion’s experiential dimension and therefore excludes an important aspect of seeking the truth about first principles.

Enter religion. Religion may be viewed as offering a distinctive means to get at the truth of the axioms assumed in other fields of inquiry. But it is more than that. It also offers us a means to address questions such as what we should do with the gift of free will. When religion is addressing these questions, it is addressing problems that science is incapable of fully addressing and that religious insight is singularly capable of addressing.

Religion has historically tried to answer questions much broader than just the source of the universe and the laws of nature, on the one hand, and the source of free will and what we should do with the gift that it represents, on the other.

Religion’s reputation has been sullied because various religious institutions tried to stubbornly cling to scientifically falsified explanations of phenomenon that are better addressed by the scientific method. But the religious impulse remains with us because only religion offers us the prospect of coming to terms with the very foundation of what it means to be human. Only by carefully combining the scientific and religious ways of thinking can we hope to achieve a complete knowledge of ourselves and the universe in which we live.

Within each major religious tradition, there is a mystical tradition. These traditions are remarkably similar in their main tenants. They emphasize the ability to seek inner knowledge of the self as a means of union with God and of piercing the veil of ignorance. They are esoteric, ahistorical traditions in contrast to the exoteric, historic traditions that serve as the foundation of the leading aspect of most major religions. I find that it is this aspect of religion that offers the most hope to better understanding.

In the words of Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, the mystical experience is based "on a direct nonintellectual experience of reality -- and this experience has a number of fundamental characteristics which are independent of the mystic’s geographical, historical or cultural background."

Paul Elmer Moore writing in his 1932 book Christian Mysticism said:

There is a ground of psychological experience, potential in all men, actually realized in a few, common to all mystics of all lands and times and accountable for the similarity of their reports. But upon that common basis we need not be surprised to see them also erecting various superstructures in accordance with their particular tenants of philosophy and religion. At bottom, their actual experiences, at the highest point at least, will be amazingly alike, but their theories in regard to what has happened to them may be radically different.

He went on to say that that the experience consisted of being "swallowed up, for the most part only momentarily, in an abysmal sense of absolute unity ... the ecstasy of unconscious oblivion"

Karen Armstrong in her book about Christian mysticism Visions of God wrote

All sound mystics insist that the experience of the divine has nothing whatever to do with emotion and certainly nothing at all to do with physical sensation. Many of the disciplines of contemplation have been designed precisely to wean the mind and heart away from these earthbound modes of perception to help them to discover another kind of experience, which they call "spiritual."

Richard Rolle, a 14th century English mystic wrote in his Fire of Love that:

And truly when the wonder and mystery of God shines forth only in infinity, without any beginning, who would be fool enough to claim familiarity with a mystery that cannot be spoken to our mortal ears? The person who knows God fully is one who recognizes that God is incomprehensible and unknowable, far beyond our capacity.

The anonymous 14th century author of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote "How am I supposed to think about God himself? What is he? and I can only answer: "I have no idea!" Your intellect and its ability to reflect and contemplate religious matters is "good and holy"

But still, a man or a woman who has spent a long time on such reflections must leave them behind, cast them aside and suppress them under a cloud of forgetting, if he is ever going to pierce the cloud of unknowing between him and God.

Sufism is an Islamic mystical tradition. In a sense, they are Muslim Unitarians. Sufism has often been called the creed of love. A poem written by Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Sufi living in Asia minor and writing in Persian (Farsi) expresses the sufi idea of mystical union with Beloved.

The Creed of Love

One went to the door of the Beloved and knocked,

A voice asked, "Who is there?"

He answered, "It is I."

The voice said, "There is no room for Me and Thee."

The door was shut.

After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned and knocked.

A voice from within asked, "Who is there?"

The man said, "It is thee."

The door was opened for him.

Jalaluddin Rumi

An analogy based on modern experience that comes to my mind is to think of man and God as networked PCs connected to each other and a mainframe or server.

Martin Buber was a renowned Jewish theologian who wrote among other works Ich und Du and Between Man and Man. He was a leading figure in the revival of Hasidism, a mystical movement originating in 18th and 19th century Eastern European Jewry.

His view of the mystical tradition is among the more subtle and compelling. He wrote in Ich and Du:

There are truer things here that the familiar mystic verse: "I am you, and you are I." ... God and man, being consubstantial, are actually and forever two... But mysticism? It relates how unity within duality feels. Have we any right to doubt the faithfulness of this testimony? I know not only of one but of two kinds of events in which one is no longer aware of any duality. Mysticism sometimes confounds them, as I, too, did at one time. First the soul may become one. This event occurs not between man and God but in man. All forces are concentrated into the core, everything that would distract them is pulled in, and the being stands alone in itself and jubilates, as Paracelsus put it, in it exaltation. This is a man’s decisive moment. Without this he is not fit for the work of the spirit. ... Concentrated into a unity, a human being can proceed to his encounter -- wholly successful only now -- with mystery and perfection. ... The other event is that unfathomable kind of relational act itself in which one has the feeling that Two have become One: "one and one made one, bare shineth in bare." I and you drown; humanity that until now confronted the deity is absorbed into it." Then we return to this world, our Being still divided. "That is the way to understand those masters who renounced the raptures of ecstasy of "unification."

He also wrote:

"But is solitude, too, a portal? ... Cannot intercourse with oneself change mysteriously into intercourse with mystery

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book Man Is Not Alone wrote;

The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.


To our knowledge the world and "I" are two, an object and a subject; but within our wonder the world and the "I" are one in being, in eternity.


Awareness of God does not come by degrees: from timidity to intellectual temerity; from guesswork, reluctance, to certainty; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star. Out of endless anxiety, out of denial and despair, the soul bursts out in speechless crying.

These authors and thousands of others are writing about actual experiences and knowledge obtained in a uniquely religious way. They have lived the proposition that the world is governed not only by physical laws but by poorly understood and largely ineffable spiritual laws as well.

Let us return to the two scientific conundrums of creation and free will. Free will may be profitably thought of as the creation of physical acts from nothing -- nothing in the sense of neither matter nor energy. We chose to act a particular way in the physical universe without that choice being a function of the previous state of the physical universe. We create the fabric of our lives by our choices. These choices, while bounded by physical reality, are not purely a function of physics. God, too, created the universe and the laws of nature from nothing. In this sense, we are indeed created in his image as the book of Genesis tells us. Both God and we create. It is our creative capacity, our ability to choose to weave our own life fabric independent of purely physical laws, that we share with the Godhead.

The problem of free will and the problem of the creation of the universe are, then, in an important sense two aspects of the same problem. They both address the creation by God and by man outside of the physical world. The mystical traditions represent an exploration of this creative ability and a search for connection with the creative forces of the universe. Yet, of course, we, the actors who create the fabric of our lives, have a physical being as the Universe has a physical existence. There is an interdependence here. Both science and religion bring their own unique strengths to addressing this interdependence.

To seek complete knowledge of what it means to be human requires both science and religion. By virtue of the Gödel and Popper critiques of mathematics and science as well as the problems of free will and creation, there are distinct limits to what science will ever know. Religious knowledge is a necessary supplement to scientific knowledge and the tools of logic and philosophy. Moreover, scientific notions of determinism or quantum indeterminism lead to a conception of the human condition that is utterly barren unless we introduce spirituality. Only by supplementing science with the religious ideas of free will and a divine creation of the universe and the laws of nature can a rational yet satisfactory conception of what it means to be human be fashioned.

Modern religion must move beyond doctrines and major tenants that have been falsified by scientific discovery. Yet the religious tradition that are our inheritance have much to offer and striking and original thinkers operate within those traditions. Although many people find sustenance and meaning in the most traditional manifestation of those traditions religion, should not require us to suspend disbelief or to reject reason. Religion that requires us to reject what we have learned through the scientific method and the exerciseof our reason is a contradictory and ultimately unsatisfactory enterprise. Acceptance of both reason and spirituality in a context of free inquiry enables us to fruitfully explore the nexus between science and religion that has been the subject of my remarks. The most fertile religious method fully embraces reason and science while drawing on the spiritual insights of men and women of many different times, places and heritages.

© 2000 American Unitarian Conference