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Surprising Science

Why Physics Is a Friend of Religion More than Other Sciences

Attempts to unite religion and science are not new. A big part of the challenge is finding the right language to draw parallels with, and physicists have been especially willing to walk this line.

Attempts to unite religion and science are not new. A big part of the challenge is finding the right language to draw parallels with, and physicists have been especially willing to walk this line.

The first of such physicists, Fritjof Capra, was aided with psychedelics. When Capra published The Tao of Physics in 1975, publishers were skeptical of relating theoretical physics with Eastern mysticism. But the book became a best-seller, catapulting a framework for discussing spirituality and science into new light — even as critics doubted whether Capra understood quantum field theory.

Still, of all the sciences, physics is the most popular for merging spirit and data. Given there’s no biological basis for souls or an afterlife, no chemical foundation of ethereal entities — nor would any neuroscientist seriously consider dualism, even as neurosurgeons display a penchant for discussing heaven — the theoretical nature of physics seems a perfect landing pad for the theoretical nature of religion.

Enter theoretical physicist Sylvester James Gates, who went on a soul search after his mother’s passing when he was eleven. Gates says he studied Christianity, Buddhism, and various mythologies, trying to parse wisdom from global traditions. In 2013, Gates was awarded the Mendel Medal for his work fusing religion and science.

While seeking, Gates says he was thinking in science. At sixteen he had a revelation during an experiment in physics class. Gates was hooked after watching his teacher show the continuity of time and space with a meter stick, a board, and a golf ball:

That is the only piece of real magic I have ever seen in my life—because for me, mathematics is an element of the imagination. It is, by that definition at least, something that resides between my ears; it’s one of the apps I run in my head. To see mathematics describe something in the world outside of my ears means that it’s also around us in some profound sense.

Gates believes that both science and religion are necessary for our survival as a species, yet he offers little guidance as to where the two meet. Claiming you think there might be something more is not a platform, merely a curiosity.

Others dive deeper into the application of such a marriage. The Dalai Lama offers a more thorough understanding of this intersection when he writes that science is valid only through empirical, verified information, which does not address other important and variable human qualities.

Many aspects of reality as well as some key elements of human existence, such as the ability to distinguish between good and evil, spirituality, artistic creativity—some of the things we most value about human beings—inevitably fall outside the scope of this method.

He invokes an old Buddhist parable that when someone points a finger at the moon, it is not the fingertip you should stare at or contemplate. Scientific reductionism cannot explain away human emotion even if we have a grasp of the biological mechanisms by which emotions and consciousness arise. That said, the Dalai Lama does not make the old but false assumption that ethics are dependent upon religion—a moral baseline religionists often claim that has been shown untrue by anthropological and evolutionary biological research on empathy, tribalism, and trust.

Buddhism has long drawn connections to science given its theoretical basis—the Dalai Lama, for one, has said that if science proves a Buddhist concept false, the concept must be abandoned. One is hard-pressed to find such acceptance in hardline Christian and Muslim Orthodoxies, for example. When trying to consider a merging of science and religion, which religion we’re discussing is a necessity.

Buddhism is an especially popular choice for this line of inquiry. Another monk, Matthieu Ricard, co-wrote one such book with astronomy professor Trinh Xuan Thuan. Ricard studied molecular genetics and even completed his doctoral thesis in 1972 before embarking on a life of meditation and contemplation. Like his friend the Dalai Lama, he recognizes the limits of reductionism while focusing on higher emotional practices like compassion, which result in the age-old quest for alchemical transformation:

To use a metaphor found in Buddhist texts, only the heat of that compassion united with wisdom can melt the ore in our minds, so as to liberate the gold of our fundamental nature.

King of the succinct, J. Krishnamurti, expressed his thoughts on this matter in 1985 while in discussion with theoretical physicist David Bohm:

Theory prevents the observation of what is actually taking place.

Each of these thinkers arrive at similar junctions: If by science you mean empirical materialism, evidence regarding human nature misses the mark. This should not be confused with continual breakthroughs in neurochemistry, for example—“science,” like “religion,” is a broad term with numerous connotations. The difference is that science, when done properly, is verifiable by peers.

Religion has not had the same track record, though at its best it creates community and unites disparate groups. When asked about the recent election, Jon Stewart reminds us humans are tribal animals. A democracy like America is not natural. It’s an example of humans recognizing unity is more productive and better for health and prosperity than small-group fighting.

By extension, a religious philosophy focused on charity and compassion is worthwhile, especially when it coincides with empirical facts offered by scientific research. This is a bit beyond the scope of Gates’ purported “not knowing” what happens after we die. This type of religious thinking does not serve us here and now and, in the larger scope of the world today, is irrelevant. Whether reincarnation has some scientific backing means very little to the billions of people living in poverty except, perhaps, as a means of mental and emotional escape.

We should welcome any marriage between science and religion that results in the betterment of our world. Metaphysical speculation, which contributes the bulk of religious thought, inevitably leaves us unfulfilled and should not be confused with the scientific approach.

As the popular sentiment goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Trying to make it so will never result in anything but the bolstering of self-righteousness. Whatever discipline you engage in, we’ve definitely seen too much of that for a lifetime. 

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.


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