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Science, spirituality, and depth

9 Jul


Depth” is important for us today. In our present cultural situation, pressures all around tell us that our world is one-dimensional, but we know different; we seek depth. The search for depth today is equivalent to what was called in earlier ages, the quest for God.

Philosophers say our times are marked by “the turn to the natural”: things we can touch are the world for us—surfaces, the skin of things. The empirical, natural world is understood to be all there is. When we want to explain our lives and our world, we turn first to naturalistic explanations— this includes going to doctors, engineers, and scientists to explain what is going on in our bodies and in our natural environment, what kind of cars we should buy, what kind of houses we should build, how to grow our crops, and everything else imaginable. Science enters as the premiere explainer of nature. This outlook dominates in our western societies today.

These thoughts have been nesting in my brain for a long time—this week they took flight. A well-known scientist, astronomer and astrophysicist (who will remain nameless), spoke on National Public Radio: “We don’t have to listen to priests and philosophers to tell us what to believe, because we have scientists to tell us what’s real.”

This statement touches on some thorny issues concerning science today and how it relates to religion. I’ll summarize some aspects:

1—Scientific knowledge and its technological applications are built into contemporary life. Our present world population and our lifestyle are dependent on science and technology—without them, billions of people would die. I’m not saying that I “believe” in science (as in “Do you believe in evolution?”), as if science were a religion, but it’s absurd to be “against” it. I accept science as the most successful method ever devised for gaining knowledge of the physical world—and essential for our lives today.

2—Science is under attack in our country today. Preliminary budget drafts show drastic reductions for research. Scientific knowledge is subjected to political tests and often ridiculed by prominent politicians. Many of us feel an obligation to stand up for science and reject the political attacks on it.

3— But there is more to this world and our lives than science. I take exception to the scientist saying that scientists tell us what is real, with the implication that outside of science nothing is real. Such an outlook leads to a narrowing of our experience and our sensibilities. It ignores that there is a depth to the world that science cannot take the measure of. Scientists cannot tell us what is morally right or wrong; they cannot tell us about the purpose of our lives or what vocation in life will give us the most fulfillment. We need art, music, poetry, and philosophy to help us think these things through. We also need religion and spirituality to help us understand these areas of life. It is worth noting that poetry and spirituality are flourishing right in the midst of science and the turn to the natural.

The sociologist, Peter Berger, who died two weeks ago, reminded us—when “God is Dead” was in fashion—that “except for locales like Western Europe and social groups like intellectuals, most of the world is as religious as ever.” In his younger days, Berger wrote that secularization was squeezing out the sense of transcendence. He was echoing the theory that social scientists have been propounding for two centuries or more: secularization would lead to the demise of religion. This theory has now clearly been disproven on the world scene.

But the turn to the natural is real, and I espouse it myself. What challenges us now is to understand how religion, spirituality, art, music, and poetry point to what is real in the context of the natural world that science describes—the dimension of depth. Many people devote themselves to discovering and nurturing the places of depth in life. I include these efforts in my idea of “spirituality.”

The theologian, Paul Tillich, who was pre-eminent in the 1950s and 60s, wrote about depth—God is not “out there,” but rather “in there.” He also wrote about the “mystery, depth, and greatness” that lives in all of us. “What is your mystery, depth, and greatness?” Ask that question about yourself or the next time you get together with your friends.

The scientist who spoke on public radio seriously misses the mark, she doesn’t really get the point of what is going in our world today. Rejecting priests and philosophers, in the interest of science is simplistic. The challenge is much more complex and much more exciting.

Where is the depth in your life? And how do you talk about it?

In this poem, I sketch some of my own everyday experience of depth:


. . . runs very deep

The mountain stream races
madly down the slope
through trees
that go forever.
Clear water,
you can see clear down to its bed,
there’s nothing hidden.
You can cup it in your hands
and have a drink. It
runs very deep.

Her face mirrors concentration
on agendas far away
too much hers to share,
reflecting a side of her
I must not know.
A sudden shaft of smile–
she’s reentered my world.
In that moment, I know
the foundations of her self go
down very deep.

In the making
twelve billion years
unleashed from hot simplicity
that would not be contained.
Random reaches beyond millennia
raised to light years’ pace until
a complex creature
reaches farther still.
Something about random
flows very deep.

I know it’s in there–somewhere–
of that I am convinced.
Hidden, it defies my grasping,
sneaks into a crevice–
in the bony crags of my skull.
It crawls among the folded contours
of my brain. Self eludes me
at every turn. When it does allow
me to look into its eyes, I see–
endless depth.


(c) Phil Hefner July 9, 2017



Our ambivalent witness to moral urgency

8 Sep

Note: my last installment and this one are the most academic segments of my blog. I will continue to cast my light on themes that interest me–most of them will not be academically oriented. It all depends on what the theme requires. Thanks for bearing with me.

I consider J. Robert Oppenheimer a classic example of ambivalence towards science and technology. Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist and director of the Los Alamo lab that produced the first atom bomb, is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is also iconic in his ambivalence toward science. Clearly, he loved his scientific work–it was his very life, until the day he died in 1967–he said he needed it more than he needed friends. At the same time, the use of the bomb troubled him greatly. After the first atomic test, he said, “I’m not clear whether science is good for humanity or bad.” He also said “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” He was ostracized in both the scientific and political communities. President Harry Truman called him a crybaby, while Edward Teller, a fellow nuclear physicist, and Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic a Energy Commission, called him a communist, and took away his security clearance.

What is ambivalence? We need to be clear that it refers to the fact that we sometimes hold two differing values at the same time–it’s the love/hate relationship. Oppenheimer loved physics more than life itself, and yet he was horrified by what physics had produced. It is important that we recognize Oppenheimer as a figure of ambivalence, because too often negativity towards science is dismissed as ignorance and stupidity. Scientists and scientific organizations are frequently in the lead dismissing ambivalence–it is often associated with Creationism. This is unfortunate on two counts: most of those people who are ambivalent about science and technology are equally averse to creationism; and ironically, more than a few creationists are working scientists.

Ambivalence toward science and technology is deeply rooted in our culture, both our high sophisticated culture and popular culture, carried across generations in stories and images. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), himself a distinguished scientist–especially for his theories of color and the evolution of plants and insects–certainly represents high culture. Two of his stories, however–Faust and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice–are based on centuries-old traditions and have entered the popular mind. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice goes back two thousand years and has been retold by Walt Disney in his two Fantasia films. Faust as mad scientist has been portrayed in many films, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove.

There are many other stories and images that convey the same ambivalence–for example, The Monkey’s Paw (whose point is the same as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the Jewish tales of the Golem. The Golem is especially striking–defined in Jewish folklore as an artificial figure constructed to represent a human being and endowed with life. In some versions, the Golem is inscribed with the Hebrew word “truth” written on its forehead. It could be deactivated by removing the first letter of the word, changing it from “truth” to “death.” If you want the fascinating details, see My last blog piece suggested that in our culture, popular sci-fi movies frequently carry the stories and images of ambivalence.

These traditions are old, and they run very deep in our cultural psyche. In an important sense, they are the “people’s culture.” They will not allow themselves to be erased; they may go underground, only to pop up unexpectedly. Today we see them alive and well in the Western societies that are also the most sophisticated scientific and technological societies in history. We are excited about the future possibilities that science and technology can bring us, but at the same time, we fear them.

How should we respond? Some suggestions:

1–I take as given that today science and technology are essential for human well-being and survival. “Anti-science” and “anti-technology” positions are profoundly absurd. Nevertheless, we remain ambivalent, and our best strategy is to channel that ambivalence into the formulation of goals and holding ourselves accountable to them.

Toward what goals should our science and technology be directed? There is no more important issue facing us today, and both strategic and moral/ethical questions are involved in goal-setting. A laundry list of issues makes the point: medicine, manipulating life, extending life, manipulating the environment, plant and animal engineering, military applications, wider use of robots. Enough said–the scope is obvious.

There are vigorous discussions today among scientists about goals and ethical issues in their work. These efforts are important and salutary; they need to be intensified and, the public should be kept more aware of the issues and possibilities. The scientific discussions should also focus on large scale issues, not only on specific techniques and procedures. We need public consideration of proposals like that of Francis Fukuyama for establishing a governing agency for biogenetic sciences comparable to the Atomic Energy Commission in its field. See: Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

2–Religious communities should not let themselves be captured by negativity and condemnation of scientific advance, as they have frequently in the past. Nor should they seek some tepid “middle way”–for example, praising the science that saves lives and the technology that restores wetlands, while condemning out of hand various forms of genetic engineering, including genetically modified foods. Furthermore, it is salutary that seminaries are including the relevant scientific education in their curricula. At the same time, religionists should embrace ambivalence towards science and technology and never retreat from the public discussion of how science and technology can best serve human welfare. They should enter into free and open discussion of the most difficult areas scientific and technological impact on society.
The ambivalence toward science and technology that we find in popular culture is a gut level reminder that the moral agenda remains an urgent challenge for us. That agenda must be pursued–it won’t go away.
(c) Phil Hefner 9/8/2015