Author Archives: Anthony Mannucci
Many individuals reject religion because it requires faith in things that cannot be proved. For many, the alternative to religion is “humanism” based on embracing reason. Reason and evidence can form the basis of a worldview that does not require faith.
But is this really true? Can humanism based on reason replace religion? Let’s consider what we mean by “reason”. It certainly seems reasonable to based one’s world view on reason. Reason is logical and basing our lives on logic permits us to avoid extremist viewpoints.
However, logic is no replacement for religion. Religion is about who we are and what we value. It is about the assumptions that motivate us in a fundamental way.
Logic, on the other hand, is more like a transportation device. With logic, we can start at some point A and get to another point B. A and B are not physical locations, but points in a journey of ideas and reason. Logic provides rules that allow us to combine ideas to get new ideas and insights.
Logic does not provide the starting point. If my ideas start here, logic can help my ideas get to there. But I can have ideas that are starting points. Logic and reason cannot help me with the starting points. There will always be ideas and thoughts that I simply have to accept, that I cannot derive from other ideas.
Many of the fundamental questions that religious people think about are ignored by humanists. Fundamental questions about why the universe exists, or what one should do within this universe, can be ignored. Pondering such questions might not help you in your job, or help you reach material goals. People who believe in the primacy of reason are well advised to steer clear of such imponderables.
There are those who will ask such difficult questions. The humanists will respond by saying “we don’t need to ask those questions, nor do we need to answer them.” Humanists are happy to ignore questions whose answers cannot be verified using logic. Yet, we cannot be sure such questions have no answer or meaning. I am not afraid to ask such questions, acknowledging that the answers may never be fully available. I am willing to consider questions that cannot be answered using reason. Certain questions about life may well be worth thinking about, even if the answers will remain elusive during our lifetimes.
An important aspect of the “religion versus science debate” is the acceptance, or not, of the supernatural. A “higher being” such as God is often viewed as a manifestation of the supernatural. To those who are strongly tied to scientific reasoning, supernatural beings are a problem. They don’t exist. Therefore, according to some scientists, religion is deeply flawed.
My book “Embrace The Infinite” does not dwell on this apparent conflict regarding the supernatural. This conflict is not fundamental to religion or science. Are spirituality and religion still important and “valid” in the scientific era? The answer to this question does not depend on the existence (or lack thereof) of the supernatural.
To illustrate my thinking on this point, consider the following scenario. Suppose one day a recognizable “supernatural” being appears in the sky. Perhaps this being is large in stature (several stories tall), complete with long flowing white beard and the ability to “float in air” without the aid of modern technology. Even the most diehard scientist would concede: if there is a God, then that’s it. This being then communicates with all humans in whatever tongue they are familiar with to admonish them or guide them towards religious truth.
Even if God visited according to the above scenario, many people would nevertheless maintain their skepticism about God’s existence. A significant number of people might assume the being that appears is either an alien creature from an advanced civilization, or a hoax. A core group of individuals would not believe that God had arrived and that we should listen to His message.
Now consider another scenario. This scenario involves a group of people who practice a particular form of worship. They do not worship a supernatural being, but rather they worship principles. Their religion is built upon a specific set of principles without reference to a supernatural being who created the principles. In this religion, the supernatural is not really considered much.
Is a religion built upon the worship of principles or ideas really a religion? Whatever your answer to this question, I think you will agree that such a religion (if it is one) need not invoke a supernatural being.
I believe one can have a religion built upon principles that does not invoke the supernatural. What makes this a religion rather than a philosophy is that religions require actions such as prayer, participation in the congregation, and moral behavior. Philosophy tends to be concerned with ideas under discussion, rather than a code on how to live. If one’s worship helps fulfill one’s sense of belonging and purpose, and leads to a code of behavior and practice, then that worship is part of a religion in my opinion.
All of this provides us a new way of thinking about religion. This new way is highly compatible with science. How about giving it a try and see where it leads you? If you are interested in the topics raised here, then consider obtaining a copy of my book “Embrace the Infinite”. You might find that science and religion need not fight each other after all.
Science is conducted using the scientific method. Does the scientific method teach us about the nature of reality? Is the scientific method taking over our lives and leading us astray?
In modern times, for many people their mantra is: “if I can’t verify it, I won’t believe it.” This mantra has come from belief in the scientific method. The scientific method is based on obtaining experimental evidence for one’s hypothesis or “guess” about a natural phenomenon. Absent this evidence, a scientist will not believe the hypothesis. Is the scientific method being applied too broadly in people’s lives?
Let’s work through a concrete example to illustrate what I mean. I see a bright shimmering light in the sky, and I wish to learn more about it. As a scientist, I build an instrument, launch it on a rocket, and send it into the light. The instruments on the rocket collect data, and the radio on the rocket sends the data back to me, providing lots of details about this beautiful light. I begin to form a hypothesis about what causes the light. I plan a new rocket launch with new experiments to test my hypothesis.
However, I notice there are gaps in the data. I come to realize that about half the light I am seeing is emanating from the places where there are data gaps. I am not sure why the gaps are there. I try to fix the problem by building and trying new equipment that is stronger and more robust. However, try as I might, after several more launches, the data gaps remain and I can never obtain data from these mysterious gap regions. Yet, much of what I see emanates from there.
It’s clear that because of the data gaps, I will never fully understand or describe what causes the beautiful light I am seeing. What am I to do?
My faith in the natural world tells me there is some natural explanation for the light, but I cannot figure out what it is. I can come up with many guesses, but I cannot obtain evidence to confirm those guesses. The scientific method can only take me so far but no farther. I am left with gaps in understanding what is happening to produce those lights.
This concrete example demonstrates that, as a method, science is limited in what it can reveal about “fundamental reality”. Thinking more broadly, we can understand that this particular example reveals a deeper truth. Science is not about discovering “fundamental reality”. It is about reasoning from the evidence we can obtain. When evidence is not available, science does not help us.
There are many important parts of your life for which science cannot provide evidence. The question you must answer is: do you care about these parts of your life? As a scientist, you wanted to know more about the light in the sky and understanding that light, yet the scientific method did not provide the understanding you needed. Do you ignore the phenomenon, or do you still care about it?
Science is a method that tells us certain things, but not other things. Can you really ignore all the things for which science cannot provide the answer?
A common quandry in religion is “If God is good and God is omnipotent, then why is there so much evil in the world?” This question is often used by atheists to bolster their case against the existence of God.
Many answers to this quandary have been proposed, from the existence of an active devil, to freedom of choice, to “there is no God”, to “it’s part of the mystery.”
Let’s consider a scientific perspective. Scientists observe the world and try to describe or explain it. It’s valid to suggest that there is evil in the world. The scientific perspective is that the existence of evil tells us something about the world. If we assume that God exists, evil’s existence tells us something about God also. The atheist uses the existence of evil to conclude there is no God, but another perspective is to suggest that evil’s existence informs us about the nature of God.
God and evil appear to co-exist. If you believe in God, you might then conclude that God has “chosen” to allow evil and deprivation to exist.
Why would God choose this? That is not something that anyone has figured out, although there are many ideas about that. Can I suggest that God, although an omnipotent being, is not the same as a “powerful person”. In expecting God to rule out all evil, we are expecting God to behave as a human would. That expectation is probably a mistake.
Scientific reasoning applied to this subject might be: God and evil exist together. This tells us something about the nature about God. If God exists, and is truly benevolent and all powerful, then “thinking scientifically” we would conclude that evil exists in the presence of an all-knowing, all-powerful benevolent being. The next step would be to deduce what is meant by “all-powerful.” Clearly, “all-powerful” does not mean a being that stamps out evil at every opportunity.
What does “all-powerful” mean? That is truly something to understand more deeply.
My book “Embrace The Infinite” is largely about how science and religion inform each other. Consider the following.
You come upon a wall that appears to be pulsating. Bulges in the wall appear at irregular intervals, like little domes the grow and recede. This is something you’ve never seen before.
Then you study the growing and shrinking of the bulges and notice there might be a pattern to it. You put on your scientist hat and start to jot down when and where the bulges form. After doing this for some time, you look at the data you’ve written down and you guess a simple formula that describes when and where the bulges form. You return to the wall, armed with your formula, and find that it holds up. It explains where the bulges will appear and predicts where the next bulge will form, etc. You are excited at having explained the bulges, but also puzzled as to what is causing them.
You notice a small door to the right of the wall. You crouch and slowly open it to find something that startles you: there is a man behind the wall, with a large pole pushing the the wall to create the bulges. He does so in such a way to create the pattern or formula that you discovered. He does it repeatedly, like clockwork, never failing or tiring.
Your reactions are mixed: awe at his perseverance, sympathy for his plight (why is he compelled to do this?), strangely a fear that he will stop.
What has this do with science?
As scientists, we are on the front side of the wall, watching nature behave, noting the patterns and, if we are lucky, figuring out the rules that govern how nature behaves. In the real world, there is no little door we can go behind to figure out why nature behaves as it does. We figure it out, but we don’t know why it is that way.
Nature behaves in such a way that we can figure it out. That is what gets many people excited about science, and about the truths science reveals. However, there are many things that science does not reveal, not because science is deficient, but because science is a method of reasoning that gives us some insights, but not everything.
Why does nature behave as it does? Sometimes there is a simplicity to nature’s behavior that is pleasing, so pleasing we think of that simplicity as a sufficient “explanation.” But really this is not so. There is no explanation. Our imaginations and our desires seem to seek out a deeper purpose to this world, but science is limited in what it can show us.
Many scientists and atheists don’t want to ask why, or attempt to venture behind the wall. But is it so wrong to consider such a venture? We have active minds with imaginations and a seeking nature to learn more. We can ask why, but the answer is not easy to find. Are we wrong to try? How can we be so sure it is wrong to try?
Jesus was the son of a carpenter. Would he have been a scientist had he been alive today?
Imagine a time before science existed, before the idea of “natural law” was contemplated. What would a thoughtful man or woman think about the world around them?
They would see a regularity to nature, as if there was a power behind the movement of the Sun through the sky. This and other major natural forces in our lives appear to be directed, appear to have a purpose.
Early spiritual ideas did imbue the natural world with human characteristics. Before religions based on monotheism – one God – there were religions that put human traits on natural things. Trees had personalities, as did rocks and stars.
It may seem silly now, but let’s step back a moment. There is a unity to things. We seem to have a sense of purpose to our lives. Is that so different than the sense of purpose early humans assigned to the Sun’s passage through the sky?
What science teaches us now is that in fact these are quite related. Human purpose comes from the mind, the mind consisting of the brain, which follows natural laws. Science does suggest that our sense of purpose is derived from the same forces that move the Sun through the sky. That is, the forces of nature (gravity for the Sun’s motion, electrical forces for our brains).
That unity is something that might have been sensed by spiritual thinkers before the beginning of scientific thinking. After all, when a body dies, it returns to dust. Perhaps we all come from dust. This is what science teaches us, and perhaps it was understood long ago.
What I write in the book is that the scientific viewpoint that finds a unity to all things can lead to spiritual insights.
Jesus endowed this world with deep insights, well before science was known. Maybe Jesus knew what the future would bring, even without doing a single scientific experiment.
Here is a snippet of the debate from the Religion topic at scienceforums.net:
The arrogance of theists (and you) in demanding humans are separate from the animal kingdom (special in some way) never ceases to amaze me, how exactly are we so special? There are a myriad of scientific studies that show we are just another example of an evolved species. Also why do theists insist on trying to prove it? As far as I’m aware God insists on faith alone and so any proof that he does exist would automatically mean he doesn’t, if this premise is true, as he would disappear in a puff of logic (paraphrasing Douglas Adams here).
And I reply:
Let me answer you.
Humans are pretty special, but you could say it’s a matter of opinion, so I need not go there.
You are right: theists should not and cannot prove it. Trying to prove it is not worth the effort. I don’t think God insists on faith alone, but faith is surely important.
That’s a way that humans are special: we live by faith. We understand faith and can reason about it. No other species can do that. Granted, that does not prove God’s existence.
We can all agree on an Absolute Truth as I state in my book “Embrace the Infinite”: the existence of natural law. That is, we all believe in an eternal presence that governs all material things. Modern physics suggests that this material universe embodies the concept of perfection, in that every electron (or quark, or photon) is identical to every other one in its essential aspects. Modern science also suggests an immutable logic governs this world.
I am in awe of this. You may not be. But you cannot deny the essential reality of which I speak. Therefore, the eternal and the perfect exists and has always been with us. Perhaps that is not God, but it is leading in that direction.
Please bear with me. I realize the title of this post is provocative. How can I, a humble scientist, possibly know the purpose of your life?
Please hear me out. Think for a moment about what you value in this world. Once you have decided, then I suggest that the purpose of your waking hours is to help create a world that has more of what you value.
I can’t possibly know what you value, but I can suggest that what you value is the basis for the sense of purpose you will enjoy in your life. This touches on a major theme of the book: the central importance of value in our lives. Another theme is that science will not teach us what we value. If value is important, and science cannot show us what we should or should not value, then can we conclude there are limits to what science can bring to our lives?
This is one example of the limitations of science. There are other examples in the book. If science cannot be relied on as our guide, then what are we left with? In the book I make this statement: what we are left with is faith. By faith will we determine what we value, and by faith will we find a sense of purpose.
Perhaps this post is not as provocative as you first thought?
In this blog, I will post content related to my book “Embrace The Infinite” by Anthony Mannucci. I hope you enjoy these posts and benefit from them. I hope you will contribute with comments. Thanks for visiting!