Saturday, March 17, 2007

What's a "Spirit"?

There's been a kind of kerfluffle over at Science Blogs about some posts on a blog I'm going to start reading. Rob Knop, an astronomer, has posted long explanations of what he means when he says he is a Christian, and how it is compatible with his scientific understanding of the history and nature of the universe. (Part 1 Part 2 Part 3) He's managed to get both religious people and scientists angry at him, by describing himself as believing only the parts of each that are compatible with each other.

So half a dozen other Science Bloggers have responded with their own opinions on whether science and spirituality conflict and if so, whether that conflict can be resolved. Can one be a scientist and truly religious at the same time? (One thing's for sure, if you were, there'd be people saying you weren't religious enough on one side, and others saying you couldn't possibly be a good scientist.)

Mark Chu-Carroll of "Good Math, Bad Math," who also describes himself as religious, chimed in with his own definition of spirituality which is very close to the kind of thing I was trying to describe in this post. I said that a mosaic was more than just a collection of stones, and he says that a photograph is more than just paper and colorful chemicals. For him, his spirituality is his awareness of that level beyond the literal, his ability to see the picture, the pattern, and not just the medium in which it is formed.

Another Science Blogger, Mike Dunford, defines "spirtuality" to mean roughly, "sense of wonder."

It's that feeling that you might get watching a new living thing - human or cat, fish or fowl - emerge into the world for the first time. It's the sense that might come when you first pick up a fossil, and realize just how much time - what an unimaginable depth of years - separates you from the living thing that lived and died, and left behind only the fragile traces that you are holding. It's the wonder that might come when you see your first ruined castle, and look at the land that it commanded, and wonder about the people who lived inside. It's the emotion that you might feel when you first see a famous work of art outside of a book. And, yes, it's a feeling that you might have when you walk into the nave of a cathedral. The sensation I'm trying to describe might come the first time you look at the insides of a cell, or watch it divide, or the first time that you look through a telescope large enough to let you see Jupiter as a real planet, and not just a light in the sky.

(I'm going to start reading his blog, too.)

I'm not a Science Blogger (I don't think I could be -- that would require updating a lot more frequently and actually proofreading before posting) but I want to get in on the act anyway.

I think the most useful definition of "spirit" is "that part of the human mind that seeks a purpose."

No one ever asks any of us if we want to be born, or gives us an instruction manual once we get here. We're just thrown into the world, to sink or swim.

If I can carry that metaphor a little further -- others, who've been here longer, can give us tips on how to stay afloat. We learn the skills necessary to survive from parents and teachers and friends and authors and TV actors... They can teach us to swim, but they don't agree on which direction we should be swimming.

You wake up every morning and you have to decide what to do with yourself. What end do you want to work towards? Okay, you have to put a certain amount of your day into doing the things that keep you alive: eating, sleeping, making money. But you still have choices -- at least, if you're lucky enough to live in a first world country, you do. You could make money working on an assembly line, or as a nurse or as a real estate agent, or for a charity, or running one of Donald Trump's casinos. You could try to maximize the amount of money you make, or maximize the amount of leisure time you have. You can choose to spend some of that money and leisure time raising a family, or devote as much as possible to parties, ski trips, cruises, romantic flings, or to creating a work of art, or volunteering.

In order to decide what to do with their days, people have to decide what they want out of life. That's a "spiritual" decision, in my book. A "spiritual" question is one that boils down to "What's really important?" A "spiritual" experience is one which provides some kind of answer to that question.

The reason these topics will always be controversial is that there is no real consensus on the answer, and nobody likes being told that what they've chosen to do with their life is meaningless, unimportant. So the stakes are high when two people who disagree begin to discuss the subject.

The different religions are different answers to this question. The supernatural comes into it because people feel that whatever they do is meaningless if it's all going to be wiped out by their death anyway. Life is so short. What's the point in doing anything at all, if it's just going to be erased immediately? Either some form of eternal life or some omniscient being with an eternal memory, is necessary if their actions are going to be of any real significance. A being with not only a memory but a plan, a greater end for us to serve, which unambigiously defines "right" and "wrong" (and won't ever be achieved within our lifetimes, so that we will never be left directionless) would be even better. It would be nice to think that our suffering isn't pointless even when it clearly serves no human purpose, that it serves something higher.

Any of these scenarios requires something, someone, to exist who is not bound by the laws of the natural world, in which everything that lives, dies, and entropy always increases. But the idea that something could be unbound by the laws of the natural world has a lot of implications. Miracles are possible. It makes sense that such a being should actually be able to control the natural world. And if so, could indeed have created it. After all, it is nonsense to say that the laws of nature require the laws of nature to exist. So what does require it; why do they exist?

This is the sense in which science still leaves room for a creator god, and probably always will, as that which created natural laws. Since they can't explain their own existence, the fact that the universe exists at all has to be seen as a miracle, of sorts.

Of course, there are other alternatives. The existence of the laws of nature might be a consequence of the laws of logic. As Einstein suggested, God may not have had any choice in the creation of the universe. It might be that logic itself (together with some set of axioms that everyone agrees to be obviously true, if we can find any axioms like that) requires the universe to be exactly as it is. But if so, we can't yet prove that -- though many have tried.

And invoking God to explain why the laws the nature should exist doesn't explain why God should exist. It may be the the laws of logic require it... But if so, we can't yet prove it.

And me? I have this tendency to make these posts about science and religion without really taking a position one way or another. I don't want to offend anyone. But I don't want to cop out either. I want to be intellectually honest.

What sense of purpose motivates my decisions, day to day? What keeps me from despairing?

I like to think of the universe as a sort of "being" (whose existence I can't explain, anymore than most religious people can explain God's existence.) This being is not conscious except to the extent that we, humans, are a part of the universe, and we are conscious. When intelligent life came along (a short time ago in the history of the universe, if you count only humans as intelligent life), the universe in some sense "woke up." Individually we are short lived, but as a species we learn, and remember things. I'll be dead someday, but the species will live on.

This, together with my somewhat scientific understanding of time as a "direction," such that the past in some sense exists -- over there somewhere [points in the negative t direction] -- is enough to make me believe that death does not render life meaningless.

And what is our purpose here? Well, if you believe in God, what would you say God's is?

Maybe, to give the universe a purpose?

Without us to care, the universe is nothing but a lot of empty accidents. But if humans care and remember, marvel at the shape of galaxies and the variety of butterflies, then those things do mean something.

So how does this influence my actions? Well, for one thing, it makes me want to be a writer, still, even though I'm all grown up now and I know how impractical a writing career is. Stories are the way we give events meaning and context, and even fictional stories work, because of their usefulness as metphors. I think it was science fiction author Nancy Kress who described art as a way of "turning pain into beauty." That's partly how I deal with pain, by making it into a story in my head. (I also try to take the long view -- how much will this matter in five hundred or ten thousand years? It'll still be there, the way the early chapters of a novel are still there even when you get to the last page, but as a small part of a big story.)

For another thing, it makes me feel connected to the rest of humanity, 'cause I see the whole human race as one thing, in a way, as the brain of the universe. That also means hurting each other, or letting each other suffer when it can be prevented, is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Since we're a part of the same thing. My interest in future generations makes me want to read science fiction, and influences my political opinions for sure: I find it hard to take national borders very seriously, but I do take global warming seriously, along with other long term threats to the species as a whole. It also probably contributes to my deciding that I do want to have kids, to be a link in the chain of generations. And that right there is going to end up determining how I spend a lot of days, over the course of my life.

Finally, this kind of philosophy probably has something to do with why I went into physics, which has determined how I've spent a lot of my days, already. I said that we humans as a species we could learn, and remember things. Well, the knowledge that lasts is knowledge about the things that last -- the laws of nature, the structure of the universe. I wanted to contribute to that, somehow. These days I know better than to think I'm going to discover something like quantum mechanics or relativity, but even if I'm just a memory cell for the species, keeping what we've learned already in mind even as the people who discovered it die, that's a fairly worthwhile thing. Teaching it, or applying it to technologies that make life better for future generations (and make no mistake, the difference between the choices we have in the first world and the lack of choices in the third world is technology, humble things like automatic sewing machines and hygenic food storage) is also worthwhile.

Obviously I don't want to be told I'm wrong about any of this stuff any more than anyone else does. But I admit that I'm guessing. I don't think that the idea of God is ridiculous, as I hope I made clear above. In principle it makes as much sense as anything else, if you start from the premise that the laws of nature could not create themselves. And I'd like it to be true.

I'd hope that even if it were, though, God would have room in heaven for people like me, who are fumbling around looking for their own answers. I don't find anything attractive or believable about the idea of a vengeful, judgemental God. I think the God of C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K Chesterton (my favorite religious writers) would mostly be okay with how I'm living my life, even if I'm wrong about everything.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When you write the following, "It might be the laws of logic require it..." You sound a lot like "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God...." And if I'm correct, the Greek word for Word is..."logos," the root word for "logic." - RM