The following article is Chapter One of a book entitled Finishing The Rat Race.
All previously uploaded chapters are available (in sequence) by following the link above or from category link in the main menu, where you will also find a table of contents and a preface on why I started writing it.
“Let no one enter here who does not have faith”
— Inscription over the door on Max Planck’s Laboratory
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.”
These were the words spoken by the astronauts on board Apollo 8 once they had established a lunar orbit, thereby becoming the first humans ever to leave Earth fully behind them. As a literary choice, it was one that inevitably caused considerable irritation, and especially amongst atheists around the world.
Undoubtedly there was more than a little politics involved when it came to the Apollo astronauts making a decision to read passages from the Bible. Given that the Cold War face-off had provided such impetus for the entire space programme, having steadily beaten off the challenge of the godless Soviets, if nothing else the words transmitted a kind undiplomatic rebuke, redoubled when the Eagle landing module touched down just a few months later, and the astronauts’ first duty became to plant the Stars and Stripes in the pristine moon dust. Skipping about in delight, taking some holiday snaps and bringing home a basket full of moon-rocks no longer enough.
Not that I am trying to rain on anyone’s parade. Far from it. The Moon landing involving not merely a tremendous technical achievement but also a hell of a lot of guts. It was one moment when ordinary Americans had every reason to feel pride. Viewed in an alternative light, however, this towering and singular accomplishment was also the extraordinary end product of many centuries of truly international effort. A high point in a centuries long science and engineering project set in motion by pioneers like Galileo, Kepler and, of course, Newton, which only then culminated on July 20th 1969 with such a genuinely epoch-marking event that for many minutes the world collectively held its breath … 1
Apollo 8 had been just another of the more important reconnaissance missions necessary to lay the groundwork for the moon landing itself. Another small step that led directly to that most famous step in history (so far), although as a step, the Apollo 8 mission was also breathtaking in its own right. As for the grumbling about the transmission of passages from Genesis, well the inclusion of any kind of religious element seemed inappropriate to many. After all, science and religion are not supposed to mix, but on top of which, having gained seeming ascendancy why was Science suddenly playing second fiddle again?
Religion, as a great many of its opponents readily point out, is superstition writ largest. Science, by contrast, purposefully renounces the darkness of superstition, and operates solely by virtue of the assiduous application of logic and reason. Science and religion are therefore as incompatible as night and day, and so when it came to the cutting edge of space exploration, just what did the Bible have to do with any of it? Sir Isaac Newton was doing the driving, wasn’t he…?
On the other hand, and playing Devil’s Advocate, why not choose these words? After all, the circumstances rendered a strange appropriateness and charge to the plain vocabulary of Genesis: heaven and earth; void and darkness; the face of the waters. A description of the act of creation so understated, and yet evocative, that it’s hard to recall a more memorable paragraph in the whole literary canon, and few with greater economy. If the astronauts or NASA were endorsing the biblical story of creation that would have been another matter, of course, but here I think we can forgive the perceived faux pas – ‘one false step amidst a giant leap forward for mankind!’
My personal wish is that as Neil and Buzz were setting off to “where no man had gone before”, climbing into their Lunar Landing Module and sealing the air-lock behind them, they might forgetfully have left the flag behind to keep Michael Collins company. Leaving no signs of their extraordinary visit besides the landing section of the strange metal beetle they had flown in, and, beside it, their monumental, and somehow still astonishing, footprints.
Very occasionally I happen to meet intelligent and otherwise rational people who’ll made the claim that the biblical story of creation is broadly supported by the latest scientific discoveries. The universe began at a moment, they’ll explain, just as it is written. There then followed a succession of events, leading to the eventual rise of Man. All of this, they’ll insist, accurately checks out with the opening page of Genesis, whilst the theories of modern cosmology and evolutionary biology simply patch the occasional missing details. And truly, this is a desperate line of defence!
For there is no amount of creative Biblical accountancy – of interpreting days as epochs and so forth – which can successfully reconstruct the myth of Genesis in order to make it scientifically sound. The world just wasn’t created that way – wasn’t created at all, apparently – and creationism, which often claims to be an alternative theory, when it offers no theory at all, also fails to withstand the minutest degree of scrutiny. No, creationism survives merely on account of the blind and desperate faith of its adherents. Here indeed is how a modern cosmologist might have gone about rewriting the Biblical version (if by chance they had been on hand to lend God a little assistance):
“In the beginning God created a small but intense fireball. A universal atom into which space and time itself were intrinsically wrapped. As this primordial fireball very rapidly expanded and cooled, the fundamental particles of matter condensed out of its energetic froth, and by coalescence, formed into atoms of hydrogen, helium and lithium. All this passed in a few minutes.
Clouds of those original elements, collapsing under their own weight, then formed into the first stars. The loss of gravitational potential energy heating the gases in these proto-stars to sufficiently high temperatures (many millions of degrees) to trigger nuclear fusion. In the cores of such early giants, the atoms of hydrogen and helium were now just beginning to be fused into ever-heavier elements through a series of stages known as nucleosynthesis. Happily this fusion of smaller atoms into increasingly larger ones generated an abundance of energy. Enough to keep the core temperature of each star above a million degrees; hot enough to sustain the fusion of more and more atoms. So it was that the hydrogen begat helium, helium begat lithium, lithium begat beryllium and boron… And God saw that it was good.
After a few billion years had passed, these same stars, which had hitherto been in a state of hydrostatic balance – thermal and radiation pressure 2 together supporting the weight of the gases – were burning low on fuel. During this last stage, at the end of a long chain of exergonic 3 fusion reactions, atoms as large as iron were being created for the very first time. Beyond the production of iron, however, this nucleosynthesis into even heavier elements becomes energy exhaustive, and so the process of fusion could no longer remain self-sustaining. So it came to pass that the first generation stars were starting to die.
But these stars were not about to fizzle out like so many guttering candles. The final stage of their demise involved not a whimper, but bangs of unimaginable power. Beginning as a collapse, an accelerating collapse that would inevitably and catastrophically rebound, each star was torn apart within a few seconds, the remnants propelled at hyper-velocities out into deep space. And it was during these brief but almighty supernova explosions when the heavier elements (lead, gold and ultimately all the stable elements in the periodic table) came into being.
Ages came and passed. Pockets of the supernova debris, now drifting about in tenuous clouds, and enriched with those heavier elements, began to coalesce a second time: the influence of gravity rolling the dust into new stars. Our Sun is one star born not from that generation, but the next, being one of almost countless numbers of third generation of stars: our entire Solar System emerging indeed from a twice-processed aggregation of swirling supernova debris. All this had passed around 5 billion years ago, approximately 14 billion years after the birth of time itself.”
Now very obviously in this modern reworking there can be no Earth at the time of creation, so the story in Genesis fails to accord with the science right from its outset: from chapter one, verse one. For there is simply no room for the Earth when the whole universe is still smaller than a grapefruit.
I can already hear the protests of course: for Earth we must read Universe apparently, in order to make any meaningful comparison. Okay, so playing along, what then becomes of heaven? For God created both heaven and earth remember. Well, if heaven was once some place above our heads (as it surely was for people living under the stars at the time when Genesis was written) then to accord with the current theories of cosmology, perhaps those who still subscribe to the entire Biblical story imagine its existence as a parallel universe; linked through a wormhole we call death. Truly, the Lord works in mysterious ways!
Some readers will doubtless baulk at the idea of God being the creator of anything, and yet I think we should honestly admit that nothing in modern cosmology with certainty precludes the existence of an original creative force; of God only as the primum mobile, the first-mover, igniting the primordial spark. Indeed, it may come as a surprise to discover (as it did for me) that one of the first proponents of the currently accepted scientific theory – now universally known as the Big Bang Theory – was by vocation a Roman Catholic priest.
Father Georges Lemaître, a Belgian professor of physics and astronomy, having quickly recognised the cosmological possibilities latent within Einstein’s then still novel theory of General Relativity, published his ‘hypothesis of the primeval atom’ in the prestigious scientific journal Nature as long ago as 1931. Yet interestingly, his ideas did not receive much support at the time, in part due to lack of evidence, but also because many contemporary physicists initially rejected all such theories of spontaneous universal origin as being an entirely religious import. But science isn’t built on belief, and so it can’t be held hostage to orthodoxy in the same way that religious conviction can. This is where science and religion absolutely depart. Although, in order to explore this further, it is first helpful to consider two vitally important though rather difficult questions: “what is science?” and “what is religion?”
I have a friend who tells me that science is the search for knowledge; an idea that fits very happily with the word’s etymology: from Latin scientia, meaning “to know”. Meanwhile the dictionary itself offers another useful definition: “a branch of knowledge conducted on objective principles involving the systematized observation of, and experiment with phenomena.” According to this more complete description, science is not any particular set of knowledge, but rather a system or systems that aim at objectivity.
Scientific facts exist, of course, but these are simply ideas that have been proved irrefutable. For instance, that the Earth is a ball that moves around the Sun. This is a fact and it is a scientific one. For the most part, however, scientists do not work with facts as straightforward as this. And rather than facts, the most common currency of working scientists is theories. Scientific theories are not to be believed in as such, but a means to encompass the best understanding available. They exist in order to be challenged, and thus to be improved upon.
In Science, belief begins and ends as follows: that some forms of investigation, by virtue of being objective, lead to better solutions than other, less objective approaches. This is the only orthodoxy to which all scientists are committed, and so, in the final analysis, being scientific means nothing more or less than an implicit refusal to admit knowledge aside from what can be observed and measured. For Science is an inherently empirical approach, with its prime directive and perhaps also its élan vital being that: in testing, we trust.
I could leave the question of science right there and move on to consider the question of religion, but before I do so, I would like to put one important matter straight. Whatever it is that science is and does, it also helps to understand that the majority of scientists rarely if ever consider this question.
As a physics undergraduate myself, I learnt quite literally nothing about the underlying philosophies of science (there was an addition module – a final year option – addressing this topic but unfortunately it was oversubscribed). Aside from this, I was never taught to analyse the empirical method in and of itself. I personally learnt absolutely nothing about hypotheses, let alone how to test them (and in case this should lead readers to think my university education was itself substandard, then let me also admit, at the risk of appearing an arrogant braggart, that I attended one of the best scientific academies in the country – Imperial College would no doubt say the best). Yet they did not teach us about hypotheses, and for the simple reason that the vast majority of physicists rarely bother their heads about them. Instead, the scientists I’ve known (and again, I was a research student for three years) do what might be broadly termed “investigations”.
An investigation is just that, and it might involve any variety of techniques and approaches. During the most exciting stages of the work, the adept scientist may indeed rely as much on guesswork and intuition as on academic training and logical reasoning. Famously, for example, the chemist August Kekulé dreamt up the structure of benzene in his sleep. Proving the dream correct obviously required a bit more work.
The task set for every research scientist is to find answers. Typically then, scientists are inclined to look upon the world as if it were a puzzle (the best puzzle available), and as with any other puzzle, the point is just to find a satisfactory solution.
So why then did I begin with talk of scientific methods? Well because, as with most puzzles, some methods will prove more efficacious than others, but also because in this case there is no answer to be found at the bottom of page 30 – so we’d better be as sure as we can, that the answer we find is the best available one. Which in turn means applying the best (i.e., most appropriate and reliable) methods at hand, or else developing still better ones.
By ‘method’, I do not mean simply whatever approach the scientist employs to test his or her own guesses about the puzzle, but just as importantly, a system that can be used to prove this solution to the satisfaction of a wider scientific community. For methods too are accepted only once they have been tried and tested.
So when the philosopher Karl Popper claims that the scientific method depends upon “testable hypotheses” (or as my friend calls them “detestable hypotheses”) I would say fair enough… but let’s not mistake this definition for a description of what scientists actually do. We may accept that science must make statements that can be falsified – this is indeed a useful “line of demarcation”, as Popper puts it 4 – and we can call these statements “testable hypotheses” if we choose – but science is simply about broadening and refining our knowledge and understanding, and any approach that is scientifically accountable will really do just fine.
So what of religion? Well, that’s a pricklier issue again, of course, so let me swerve clear of any direct answer for the moment so as to draw a further comparison with science.
Where a religious person may say, I have faith in such and such because it is written so, a scientist, assuming she is honest, ought only to say that “given the evidence we have thus far collected and collated, our best explanation is the following…” As more evidence becomes available, our scientist, assuming she has integrity (at least as a scientist), may humbly (or not) concur that her previously accepted best explanation is no longer satisfactory. In short, the scientist is always required by virtue of their profession to keep an open mind; the truth of their discipline being something that’s forever unfolding and producing facts that are rarely final.
For the religious-minded, however, the very opposite may apply, and for all who know that the true shape of things is already revealed to them through faith, there must be absolute restrictions to further open-minded inquiry. (Not that all religions stress the importance of such unassailable beliefs – some do not.)
Where it is the duty of every scientist to accept all genuine challenges, and to allow (as Richard Feynman once put it) for Nature to come out “the way she is”, it is the duty for many religious believers (though not, as I say, of all who are religious) to maintain a more rigidly fixed view of the world. Here again, however, it ought to be stressed that the scientist’s constant and single-minded aim for objectivity is not necessarily dependent on his or her lack of beliefs or subjective opinion – scientists are, after all, only human. So virtually all scientists come to their puzzles with preconceived hunches, and, whether determined by the head or the heart, have a preference for one solution over another. But this doesn’t much matter, so long as they are rigorous in their science.
Indeed, many of the most brilliant scientific minds have also held strongly religious convictions (Newton and Darwin spring immediately to mind). In studying that great work called Nature, Newton was implicitly trying to understand the mind of God, and finally Newton’s discoveries did not shatter his belief in God, but instead confirmed for him that there must be an intelligent agency at large, or at least one that set things initially in motion. Darwin’s faith was more fundamentally rocked (as we shall see), yet he came to study Nature as another devout believer. But the art of the scientist in every case is to recognise such prejudices and put them to one side, and this is the original reason for developing such strict and rigorous methodologies. Ultimately, to reiterate, Science is no more or less powerful than its own methods for inquiry. Which is how it was that physicists and astronomers gradually put aside their reservations as the evidence grew in favour of Father Lemaître’s theory of creation.
So the lesson here is that whereas religion demands faith, science asks always for the allowance of doubt and uncertainty. And just as St Thomas asked to see the holes in Christ’s palms, so too every responsible scientist is called to do the same, day in and day out. Doubting Thomas should be a patron saint of all scientists.
I wish to change the subject. It is not my aim to pitch science against religion and pretend that science is somehow the victor, when in truth I regard this as a phoney war. On its own territory, which is within the bounds of what is observable and measurable, science must always win. This is inevitable. Those who still look for answers to scientific questions in the ancient writings of holy men are only deceiving themselves.
But science too has its boundaries, and, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein argued in his famous (if notoriously difficult) Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus – proceeding via an interwoven sequence of numbered and nested propositions and aphorisms to systematically unravel the complex relationship between language, thought and the world – rational inquiry, though our most promising guide for uncovering the facts of existence, can never be complete.
Just as the Universe apparently won’t allow us to capture every last drop of heat energy and make it do work for us, at least according to current thermodynamic theories, so Wittgenstein argued (to his own satisfaction and also to the exacting standards of Bertrand Russell) an analogous limitation applies to all systems of enquiry designed for capturing truth. Even the most elaborate engines in the world cannot be made 100% efficient, and likewise the most carefully constructed forms of philosophical investigation, even accepting Science as the most magnificent philosophical truth engine we shall ever devise (as Wittgenstein did 5), will inescapably be limited to that same extent – perfection in both cases being simply unattainable.
Many have racked their brains to think up the most cunning of contraptions, but none have invented a perpetual motion machine, and the same, according to Wittgenstein, goes for anyone wishing to generate any comprehensive theory of everything, which is just another human fantasy. 6 Most significantly and most controversially, Wittgenstein says that no method can be devised for securing any certain truths regarding ethics, aesthetics, or metaphysics, and that consequently all attempts at pure and detached philosophical talk of these vital matters is mere sophistry.
Having revealed the ultimate limitations to reasoning, Wittgenstein then arrives at his seventh, and perhaps most famous proposition in this most famous and celebrated of works. A stand-alone declaration: it is the metaphorical equivalent of slamming the book shut!
“What we cannot speak of we must pass over in silence.” 7, he says, suddenly permitting himself the licence of a poet.
This was his first and also last hurrah as a philosopher (or so he thought 8), Wittgenstein taking the lead from his own writings – and what greater measure of integrity for a philosopher than to live according to their own espoused principles. Ditching his blossoming career at Cambridge, he set out in pursuit of a simpler life back in his Austrian homeland, first (and somewhat disastrously) as a primary school teacher, and then more humbly as a gardener at a monastery. (Although at length, of course, he did famously return to Cambridge to resume and extend his “philosophical investigations”).
But isn’t this all just a redressing of much earlier ideas of scepticism? Well, Wittgenstein is quick to distance himself from such negative doctrines, for he was certainly not denying truth in all regards (and never would). But faced by our insurmountable limitations to knowledge, Wittgenstein is instead asking those who discuss philosophies beyond the natural sciences to intellectually pipe-down. Perhaps he speaks too boldly (some would say too arrogantly). Maybe he’s just missing the point that others more talented would have grasped, then stomping off in a huff. After all, he eventually turned tail in 1929, picking up where he’d left off in Cambridge, returning in part to criticise his own stumbling first attempt. But then what in philosophy was ever perfectly watertight?
The one thing he was constantly at pains to point out: that all philosophy is an activity and not, as others had believed, the golden road to any lasting doctrinal end. 9 And it’s not that Wittgenstein was really stamping his feet and saying “impossible!”, but rather that he was attempting to draw some necessary and useful boundaries. Trying to stake out where claims to philosophic truth legitimately begin and end. An enterprise perhaps most relevant to the natural sciences, an arena of especially precise investigation, and one where Wittgenstein’s guiding principle – that anything which can be usefully said may be said clearly or not at all – can be held as a fair measure against all theories. Indeed, I believe this insistence upon clarity provides a litmus test for claims of “scientific objectivity” from every field.
Embedded above is a film by Christopher Nupen entitled “The Language Of The New Music” about Ludwig Wittgenstein and Arnold Schonberg; two men whose lives and ideas run parallel in the development of Viennese radicalism. Both men emerged from the turmoil of the Habsburg Empire in its closing days with the idea of analysing language and purging it with critical intent, believing that in the analysis and purification of language lies the greatest hope that we have.
Let me return to the question of religion itself, not to inquire further into “what it is” (since religion takes many and varied forms, the nature of which we may return to later), but rather to ask more pragmatically “whether or not we are better with or without it”, in whatever form. A great many thinkers past and present have toyed with this question; a considerable few finding grounds to answer with a very resounding “without”.
In current times there has been no more outspoken advocate of banishing all religion than the biologist Richard Dawkins. Dawkins, who aside from being a scientist of unquestionable ability and achievement, is also an artful and lively writer; his books on neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory being just as clear and precise as they are wonderfully detailed and inspiring. He allows Nature to shine forth with her own brilliance, though never shirking descriptions of her darker ways. I’m very happy to say that I’ve learnt a great deal from reading Dawkins’ books and am grateful to him for that.
In his most famous (although by no means his best) book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins set out to uncover the arena wherein the evolution of life is ultimately played out. After carefully considering a variety of hypotheses including competition between species, or the rivalry within groups and between individuals, he concludes that in all cases the real drama takes place at a lower, altogether more foundational level. Evolution, he explains, after a great deal of scrupulous evidential analysis, is driven by competition between fragments of DNA called genes, and these blind molecules care not one jot about anything or anyone. This is why the eponymous gene is so selfish (and Dawkins may perhaps have chosen his title a little more carefully, since those who haven’t read beyond the cover may wrongly presume that scientists have discovered the gene for selfishness, which is most certainly not the case). But I would like to save any further discussion about theories of biological evolution, and of how these have shaped our understanding of what life is (and hence what we are), for later chapters. Here instead I want to briefly consider Dawkins’ idea not of genes but “memes”.
In human society, Dawkins says in his final chapter of The Selfish Gene, change is effected far more rapidly by shifts in ideas rather than by those more steady shifts in our biology. So in order to understand our later development, he presents the notion of the parallel evolution between kinds of primal idea-fragments, which he calls “memes”. Memes that are most successful (i.e., the most widely promulgated) will, says Dawkins, like genes, possess particular qualities that increase their chances for survival and reproduction. In this case, memes that say “I am true so tell others” or more dangerously “destroy any opposition to my essential truth” are likely to do especially well in the overall field of competition. Indeed, says Dawkins, these sorts of memes have already spread and infected us like viruses.
For Dawkins, religious beliefs are some of the best examples of these successful selfish memes, persisting not because of any inherent truth, but simply because they have become wonderfully adapted for survival and transmission. His idea (a meme itself presumably) certainly isn’t hard science – in fact it’s all rather hand-waving stuff – but as a vaguely hand-waving response I’d have to admit that he has a partial point. Ideas that encourage self-satisfied proselytising are often spread more virulently than similar ideas that do not. Yet ideas also spread because they are just frankly better ideas, so how can Dawkins’ theory of memes bring this more positive reason into account? Can his same idea explain, for instance, why the ideas of science and liberal humanism have also spread so far and wide? Aren’t these merely other kinds of successful meme that have no special privilege above memes that encourage sun worship and blood sacrifice?
My feeling here is that Dawkins comes from the wrong direction. There is no rigorous theory for the evolution of memes, nor can there be, since there is no clearly discernible, let alone universal mechanism, behind the variation and selection of ideas. But then of course Dawkins knows this perfectly well and never attempts to make a serious case. So why does he mention memes at all?
Well, as an atheistic materialist, he obviously already knows the answer he wants. So this faux-theory of memes is just his damnedest attempt to ensure such a right result. Religion operating as a virus is an explanation that plainly satisfies him, and whilst his route to discovering that answer depends on altogether shaky methodology, he puts aside his otherwise impeccable scientific principles, and being driven to prove what in truth he only feels, he spins a theory backwards from a prejudice. What Dawkins and others have perhaps failed to recognise is that in the fullest sense, questions of religion – of why we are here, of why we suffer, of what makes a good life – will never be cracked by the sledgehammer of reason, for questions of value lie outside the bounds of scientific analysis. Or if he does recognise this, then the failing instead is to understand that there are many, quite different in temperament, who will always need attempted answers to these profound questions.
I didn’t grow up in a particularly religious environment. My mother had attended Sunday school, and there she’d learnt to trust in the idea of heaven and the eternal hereafter. It wasn’t hell-fire stuff and she was perfectly happy to keep her faith private. My father was more agnostic. He would probably now tell you that he was always an atheist but, in truth, and like many good atheists, he was actually an agnostic. The test of this is simple enough: the fact that he quite often admitted how nice it would be to have faith in something, although his own belief was just that Jesus was a good bloke and the world would be much nicer if people to tried to emulate him a bit. (Which is a Christian heresy, of course!)
I was lucky enough to attend a small primary school in a sleepy Shropshire village. Although it was a church school of sorts, religious instruction involved nothing more than the occasional edifying parable, various hymns, ancient and modern, and the Lord’s Prayer mumbled daily at the end of assembly. Not exactly what you’d call indoctrination. At secondary school, religious instruction became more formalised – one hour each week, presumably to satisfy state legislature. Then, as the years went by, our lessons in R.E. shifted from a purely Christian syllabus to one with more multicultural aspirations. So we learnt about Judaism, Islam, and even Sikhism, although thinking back I feel sure that our teacher must have delivered such alternative lessons through gritted teeth. I recall once how a classmate confused the creature on top of a Christmas tree with a fairy. Hark, how you should have heard her!
Being rather devout, this same teacher – a young, highly-strung, and staunchly virginal spinster – also set up a Christian Union club that she ran during the lunch hour, and for some reason I joined up. Perhaps it had to do with a school-friend telling me about Pascal’s wager: that you might as well believe in God since you stand to gain so much for the price of so small a stake. In any case, for a few weeks or months I tried to believe, or at least tried to discover precisely what it was that I was supposed to be believing in, though I quickly gave up. Indeed, the whole process actually made me hostile to religion. So for a time I would actively curse the God in the sky – test him out a bit – which proves only that I was believing in something.
Well to cut a long story short, whatever strain of religion I’d contracted, it was something that did affect me to a considerable extent in my late teens and early twenties. Of course, by then I regarded myself a fervent atheist, having concluded that “the big man in the sky” was nothing more or less than an ugly cultural artifact, something alien, someone else’s figment planted in my own imagination… and yet still I found that I had this God twitch. Occasionally, and especially for some reason whilst on long journeys driving the car, I’d find myself ruminating on the possibility of his all-seeing eyes watching over me. So, by and by, I decided to make a totally conscious effort to free myself from this mind-patrolling spectre, snuffing out all thought of God whenever it arose. To pay no heed to it. And little by little the thought died off. God was dead, or at least a stupid idea of God, a graven image, and one I’d contracted in spite of such mild exposure to Christian teachings. A mind-shackle that was really no different from my many other contracted neuroses. Well, as I slowly expunged this chimera, I discovered another way to think about religion, although I hesitate to use such a grubby word – but what’s the choice?
Spirituality – yuck! It smacks of a cowardly cop-out to apply such a slippery alternative. A weasel word. A euphemism almost, to divert attention from mistakes of religions past and present. But are there any more tasteful alternatives? And likewise – though God is just such an unspeakably filthy word (especially when He bears an upper case G like a crown), what synonym can serve the same purpose? You see how difficult it is to talk of such things when much of the available vocabulary offends (and for some reason we encounter similar problems talking about death, defecation, sex and a hundred other things, though principally death, defecation and sex). So allow me to pass the baton to the greatly overlooked genius of William James, who had a far greater mastery over words than myself, and is a most elegant author on matters of the metaphysical.
“There is a notion in the air about us that religion is probably only an anachronism, a case of ‘survival’, an atavistic relapse into a mode of thought which humanity in its more enlightened examples has outgrown; and this notion our religious anthropologists at present do little to counteract. This view is so widespread at the present day that I must consider it with some explicitness before I pass to my own conclusions. Let me call it the ‘Survival theory’, for brevity’s sake.” 10
Here is James steadying himself before addressing his conclusions regarding The Varieties of Religious Experience. The twentieth century has just turned. Marx and Freud are beginning to call the tunes: Science, more broadly, in the ascendant. But I shall return to these themes later in the book, restricting myself here to James’ very cautiously considered inquiries into the nature of religion itself and why it can never be adequately replaced by scientific objectivity alone. He begins by comparing the religious outlook to the scientific outlook and by considering the differences between each:
The pivot round which the religious life, as we have traced it, revolves, is the interest of the individual in his private personal destiny. Religion, in short, is a monumental chapter in the history of human egotism… Science on the other hand, has ended by utterly repudiating the personal point of view. She catalogues her elements and records her laws indifferent as to what purpose may be shown by them, and constructs her theories quite careless of their bearing on human anxieties and fates… 11
This is such a significant disagreement, James argues, that it is easy to sympathise with the more objective approach guaranteed by hard-edged precision of science, and to dismiss religious attitudes altogether:
You see how natural it is, from this point of view, to treat religion as mere survival, for religion does in fact perpetuate the traditions of the most primeval thought. To coerce the spiritual powers, or to square them and get them on our side, was, during enormous tracts of time, the one great object in our dealings with the natural world. For our ancestors, dreams, hallucinations, revelations, and cock-and-bull stories were inextricably mixed with facts… How indeed could it be otherwise? The extraordinary value, for explanation and prevision, of those mathematical and mechanical modes of conception which science uses, was a result that could not possibly have been expected in advance. Weight, movement, velocity, direction, position, what thin, pallid, uninteresting ideas! How could the richer animistic aspects of Nature, the peculiarities and oddities that make phenomena picturesquely striking or expressive, fail to have been singled out and followed by philosophy as the more promising avenue to the knowledge of Nature’s life. 12
As true heirs to the scientific enlightenment, we are asked to abandon such primeval imaginings and, by a process of deanthropomorphization (to use James’ own deliberately cumbersome term), which focuses only on the precisely defined properties of the phenomenal world so carefully delineated by science, sever the private from the cosmic. James argues, however, that such enlightenment comes at a cost:
So long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. 13
Thus, to entirely regard one’s life through the pure and impersonal lens of scientific inquiry is to see through a glass, not so much too darkly, as too impartially. Whilst being expected to leave out from our descriptions of the world “all the various feelings of the individual pinch of destiny, [and] all the various spiritual attitudes”, James compares with being offered “a printed bill of fare as the equivalent for a solid meal.” He expresses the point most succinctly saying:
It is impossible, in the present temper of the scientific imagination, to find in the driftings of cosmic atoms, whether they work on the universal or on the particular scale, anything but aimless weather, doing and undoing, achieving no proper history, and leaving no result.
This is the heart of the matter, and the reason James surmises, quite correctly in my opinion:
… That religion, occupying herself with personal destinies and keeping thus in contact with the only absolute realities which we know, must necessarily play an eternal part in human history. 14
Mauro Bergonzi, Professor of Religion and Philosophy in Naples, speaks about the utter simplicity of what is:
“I gotta tell you the truth folks,” comedian George Carlin says at the start of his most famous and entertaining rant, “I gotta tell you the truth. When it comes to bullshit – big-time, major league bullshit! You have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims: Religion! Think about it! Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man! – living in the sky! – who watches everything you do, every minute of every day…”
And he’s right. It’s bonkers but it’s true, and Carlin is simply reporting what many millions of people very piously believe. Sure, plenty of Christians, Muslims and Jews hold a more nuanced faith in their one God, and yet for vast multitudes of believers, this same God is nothing but a bigger, more powerful, humanoid. A father figure.
“Man created God in his own image,” is the way a friend once put it to me. And as a big man, this kind of a God inevitably has a big man’s needs.
Of course, the gods of most, if not all, traditions have been in the business of demanding offerings of one kind or another to be sacrificed before them, for what else are gods supposed to receive in way of remuneration for their services? It’s hardly surprising then that all three of the great Abrahamic faiths turn sacrifice into a central theme. But then what sacrifice can ever be enough for the one-and-only God who already has everything? Well, as George Carlin points out, God is generally on the lookout for cash:
“He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing and all-wise, but somehow just can’t handle money!” But still, cash only goes so far. Greater sacrifices are also required, and, as the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac makes abundantly clear, on some occasions nothing less than human blood-sacrifice will do. 15 The implicit lesson of this story being that the love of our Lord God requires absolute obedience, nothing less. For ours is not to reason why…
“Oh, God you are so big!” the Monty Python prayer begins – bigness being reason enough to be awed into submission. But God also wants our devotion, and then more than this, he wants our love to be unconditional and undiluted. In short, he wants our immortal souls, even if for the meantime, he’ll settle for other lesser sacrifices in lieu.
As for the more caring Christian God (the OT God restyled), well here the idea of sacrifice is up-turned. The agonising death of his own son on Golgotha apparently satisfying enough to spare the rest of us. It’s an interesting twist, even if the idea of a sacrificed king is far from novel; by dividing his former wholeness, and then sacrificing one part of himself to secure the eternal favour of his other half is a neat trick.
But still, why the requirement for such a bloody sacrifice at all? Well, is it not inevitable that every almighty Lord of Creation must sooner or later get mixed up with the God of Death? For what in nature is more unassailable than Death; the most fearsome destroyer who ultimately smites all. Somehow this God Almighty must have control over everything and that obviously includes Death.
“The ‘omnipotent’ and ‘omniscient’ God of theology,” James once wrote in a letter, “I regard as a disease of the philosophy shop.” And here again I wholeheartedly agree with James. Why…? For all the reasons given above, and, perhaps more importantly, because any “one and only” infinitist belief cannot stand the test at all. Allow me to elucidate.
The world is full of evils; some of these are the evils of mankind, but certainly not all. So what sort of a God created amoebic dysentery, bowel cancer and the Ebola virus? And what God would allow the agonies of his floods, famines, earthquakes, fires and all his other wondrously conceived natural disasters? What God would design a universe of such suffering that he invented the parasitic wasps that sting their caterpillar hosts to leave them paralysed, laying their eggs inside so that their grubs will eat the living flesh?
The trouble is that any One True Lord, presuming this Lord is also of infinite goodness, needs, by necessity, a Devil to do his earthly bidding. This is unavoidable because without an evil counterpart such an infinite and omnipotent God, by virtue of holding absolute power over all creation, must thereby permit every evil in this world, whether man-made or entirely natural in origin. And though we may of course accept that human cruelties are a necessary part of the bargain for God’s gift of freewill – which is a questionable point in itself – we are still left to account for such evils as exist beyond the limited control of our species.
Thus, to escape the problem of blaming such “acts of God” on God himself, we may choose to blame the Devil instead for all our woes, yet this leads inexorably to an insoluble dilemma. For if the Devil is a wholly distinct and self-sustaining force we have simply divided God into two opposing halves (when He must be One), whereas if we accept that this Devil is just another of the many works of the One God, then the problem never really went away in the first place. For why would any omnipotent God first create and then permit the Devil to go about in his own evil ways? It is perhaps Epicurus who puts this whole matter most succinctly:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? 16
It is here that we enter the thorny theological “problem of evil”, although it might equally fittingly be called the “problem of pain”, for without pain, in all its various colourations, it is hard to imagine what actual form the evil itself could take.
So confronted by the Almighty One, we might very respectfully ask, “why pain?” Or if not why pain, as such, for conceivably this God may retort that without pain we would not appreciate joy, just as we could not measure the glory of day without the darkness of night, we still might ask: but why such excessive pain, and why so arbitrarily inflicted? For what level of ecstasy can ever justify all of Nature’s cruelties?
At this point, James unceremoniously severs the Gordian knot as follows: “… the only obvious escape from paradox here is to cut loose from the monistic assumption altogether, and allow the world to have existed from its origin in pluralistic form, as an aggregate or collection of higher and lower things and principles, rather than an absolutely unitary fact. For then evil would not need to be essential; it might be, and it may always have been, an independent portion that had no rational or absolute right to live with the rest, and which we might conceivably hope to see got rid of at last…”
There are many who have set out to find proof of God’s existence. Some have looked for evidence in archeology – the sunken cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, the preserved remains of Noah’s Ark, and most famously, the carbon dating of the Shroud of Turin – but again and again the trails lead cold. Others turned inwards. Searching for proof of God through reason. But this is surely the oldest mistake in the book. For whatever God could ever be proved by reason would undoubtedly shrivel up into a pointless kind of a God.
But there is also a comparable mistake to be made. It is repeated by all who still try, and after so many attempts have failed, to absolutely refute God’s existence. For God, even the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, can in some more elusive sense, remain subtle enough to slip all the nets. He need not maintain the form of the big man in the sky, but can diffuse into an altogether more mysterious form of cosmic consciousness. In this more mystical form, with its emphasis on immediate apprehension, history also sinks into the background.
Dawkins and others who adhere to a strictly anti-religious view of the world are in the habit of disregarding these more subtle and tolerant religious attitudes. Fashioning arguments that whip up indignation in their largely irreligious audience, they focus on the rigid doctrines of fundamentalists. And obviously, they will never shake the pig-headed faith of such fundamentalists, but then neither will their appeals to scientific rationalism deflect many from holding more flexible and considered religious viewpoints. The reason for this is simple enough: that man (or, at least, most people) cannot live by bread alone. So, for the genuinely agnostic inquirer, strict atheism provides only an unsatisfactory existential escape hatch.
In the year 2000, the world-renowned theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson won the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion 17. In his acceptance speech he staked out the rightful position of religion as follows:
I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe. Why are we here? Does the universe have a purpose? Whence comes our knowledge of good and evil? These mysteries, and a hundred others like them, are beyond the reach of science. They lie on the other side of the border, within the jurisdiction of religion.
So the origins of science and religion are the same; he says, adding a little later:
Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided; neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.
Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. 18
By restoring mystery to its proper place at the centre of our lives, Dyson’s uncertainty might indeed offer the possibility for actual religious progress. It might achieve something that the purer atheism almost certainly never will. Hallelujah and amen!
Once upon a time I was an atheist too, only slowly coming to realise that being so sure-footed about the inessential non-spirituality of existence requires an element of faith of its own. It requires a faith in the ultimate non-mystery of the material universe. That everything is, in principle at least, fathomable. Not that this means our atheistic scientific worldview must inevitably be duller nor that it automatically considers life less wonderful. Not at all. Life and the rest of it may appear to be just as aimless as weather, to steal James’ choice metaphor, but this has a kind of beauty of its own, as many an atheist will affirm. And there’s security of a different, some would say higher form, in the acceptance and affirmation of perfectly aimless existence. It can feel like a weight lifted.
Yet, the rarely admitted truth is that the carriers of the scientific light of reason (of whom I remain very much one) are just as uncertain as the average Joe Churchgoer about what might loosely be termed the supernatural (or supranatural) – by which I mean both the ultimately unknowable, and also, whatever strange and various events still remain unexplained by our accepted laws of the natural world. All of which stands to reason: the inexplicable lying, by its very definition, outside the province of science, whilst, at the same time, a bristling realisation that the universe is inherently and intractably mysterious stirs unconsciously at the back of all our minds, even those of the most logical and rational of thinkers. For the stark truth is that existence itself is spooky! And consequently, scientists too are sometimes afraid of the dark.
Finally then, the practising scientist, putting aside all questions of ultimate meaning or purpose, for these concerns are beyond the scope of their professional inquiries, must admit that they sideline such matters only on the grounds of expedience. The only useful scientific questions being ones that can be meticulously framed. So whilst science is necessarily dispassionate and preoccupied with material facts, it does not follow that being scientific means to mistake the world as revealed by science for the scientific model that approximates it – any model of the universe being, at best, obviously a pale approximation to the true complexity of the original.
Scientists then are not the new high priests and priestesses of our times, because their role is cast quite differently. Gazing downwards rather than upwards, to earth rather than heaven, they pick away at the apparently lesser details in the hope of unravelling the bigger picture. Turning outwards instead of inwards, deliberately avoiding subjective interpretations in favour of tests and measurements, they seek to avoid opinion and to rise above prejudice. All of this requires a kind of modesty, or should.
But there is also a fake religion, one that dresses itself in the brilliant white of laboratory coats. It pleads that the only true way to understanding is a scientific one, disavowing all alternatives to its own rational authority. Of course such claims to absolute authority are no less fraudulent than claims of papal infallibility or the divine right of kings, but true devotees to the new religion are blind to such comparisons. More importantly, they fail to see that all claims to an exclusive understanding, whether resting on the doctrines of religion or by the microscopic scrutiny of science, aside from being false claims, necessarily involves a diminution of life itself. That at its most extreme, this new religion of scientific materialism leads unswervingly to what William Blake called “the sleep of Newton”: a mindfulness only to what can be measured and calculated. And truly this requires a tremendous sacrifice.
James Tunney, LLM, is an Irish Barrister who has lectured on legal matters throughout the world. He is also a poet, visual artist, and author of “The Mystical Accord: Sutras to Suit Our Times, Lines for Spiritual Evolution”. In addition, he has written two dystopian novels – “Blue Lies September”, and “Ireland I Don’t Recognize Who She Is”. Here he speaks with host of “New Thinking Allowed”, Jeffrey Mishlove about the ‘Perennial Philosophy’ tradition found in cultures throughout the world, for which the essential core tenet is mysticism. What is meant by mysticism is discussed at length, and as Tunney explains, one important characteristic shared by all mystical traditions is the primary recognition of humans (and animals) as spiritual beings. Thus, scientism as a cultural force, by virtue of its absolutist materialist dogma, is necessarily antagonistic to all forms of mysticism:
So by degrees I’ve been converted back to agnostism, for all its shamefulness. Agnosticism meaning “without knowledge”. I really have no idea whether or not a god of any useful description exists, nor even whether this is a reasonable question, yet I can still confidently rule out many of his supposed manifestations (especially those where his name is top-heavy with its illuminated capital G). But any detailed speculation on the nature of god or, if you prefer, the spiritual, is what William James calls “passing to the limit”, and in passing that limit we come to what James called the “over-beliefs”.
Over-beliefs are the prime religious currency in which churches do the bulk of their business. They are what most distinguish the Lutherans from the Catholics; the Sunnis from the Shias; and more schismatically again, the Christians from the Muslims. All the carefully formulated dogma about the Holy Trinity, the Immaculate Conception, the virgin birth; the sacraments and the catechisms; and the ways of invocation of the One True God; or in more Easterly traditions, the karmic cycle and the various means and modes of reincarnation, and so on and so forth, all are over-beliefs, for they attempt to cross the threshold from “the sensible and merely understandable world” to “the hither side”. In his own conclusions, James suggested a more “pluralistic hypothesis” to square the varieties of religious experience:
Meanwhile the practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals. All that the facts require is that the power should be other and larger than our conscious selves. Anything larger will do, if only it be large enough to trust for the next step. It need not be infinite, it need not be solitary. It might conceivably even be only a larger and more godlike self, of which the present self would then be but the mutilated expression, and the universe might conceivably be a collection of such selves, of different degrees of inclusiveness, with no absolute unity realized in it at all…
These are James’ overbeliefs and they broadly concur with my own. Though mine have also been tinted a little by Eastern hues. Intuitively I am drawn by the Taoist notion of the constant flux of eternal becoming. An unnameable current of creation with an effortless strength like the strength of water, which is subtle, flexible and unstoppable. Accordingly, my intuition respects the Taoist directive to flow effortlessly with this eternal current, for there is no sense in swimming against it. And this is a philosophy that compliments well the mindfulness of Zen (or Ch’an), with its playful seriousness, its snapping fingers calling the wandering attention back to the here and now. I can easily empathise with the Zen student’s search for the raw nakedness of naked existence, with its requirement to the strip all veils of presumed understanding; focusing upon where the outer and inner worlds reflect, to achieve a spontaneous but ineffable awakening. I can see it as a potentiality, and it does not jar against the hard-won rationality of my scientific training. In contrast to so much of the declarative wiseacring of Western philosophy, mastery of both disciplines is all about knowing when to shut up. As mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, once said:
God is a thought, God is an idea, but its reference is to something that transcends all thinking. I mean, he’s beyond being, beyond the category of being or nonbeing. Is he or is he not? Neither is nor is not. Every god, every mythology, every religion, is true in this sense: it is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery. He who thinks he knows doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows. 19
I am not of course a Taoist nor a Buddhist of any kind. I am unaffiliated to any church. But I am drawn to Taoism and Zen Buddhism because of their appeals to objectivity, with emphasis on revelation above and beyond belief. For in neither Taoism nor Zen is any shape of God decreed or delineated: God being as much a zero and a one. And as a one-nothing, or a no-thing, this no-God requires no sacrifice, no high calls to blind obedience; for the Universe is as the Universe does. Yet something of the religious remains, beyond the purely philosophical, a something that strict atheism lacks: a personal role within the cosmic drama, which escapes the absurd chance and purposeless drifting of materialist scientism. 20
So it is that I choose to adopt them to an extent. To draw on their philosophies, and to marry these on again with ideas found in strands of Western Existentialism, to aspects of liberal humanism and to the better parts of Christianity (distilled in the songs of Blake, for instance). But whilst it may be edifying to pick the best from traditions of both East and West, to satisfy my god-shaped hole, I see too that such a pick-and-mix approach is prone to make as many false turns as any traditional religious route – it is interesting to note here that the word “heretic” derives from the Greek hairetikos, meaning “able to choose”. For there are no actual boundaries here. So what of the many shamanic traditions and tribal gods of primitive society? What about our own pagan heritage? Isn’t it time to get out the crystals and stuff some candles in my ears? Mesmerised by a hotchpotch of half-comprehended ideas and beliefs, just where are the safeguards preventing any freewheeling religious adventurer from falling into a woolly-headed New Ageism?
Well, it’s not for me or anyone else to call the tune. Live and let live – everyone should be entitled to march to the beat of their own drums, always taking care not to trample the toes of others in the process. But this idea of the New Age is a funny business, and I wish to save my thoughts on that (perhaps for another book). Meanwhile, my sole defence against charges of constructing a pick-and-mix religion is this: if you’d lost your keys where would you look for them? In your pocket? Down at your feet? Only under the streetlights? Oh, you have your keys – well then, good for you! Now, please don’t expect everyone else to stop looking around for theirs, or restricted to searching only under the most immediate and convenient lamppost.
Having said all this, and rather shamefully spoken too much on matters that better deserve silence, it now behoves me to add that I am certainly careful when it comes to choosing between personal over-beliefs, adhering to one rule: that what is discredited by steadfast and rigorous scientific trial is guaranteed baloney. Miracles, of course, are quite out of the question, failing on account of their own self-defining impossibility. Equally I have no time for animalistic gods of any persuasion, whether or not they share a human face. But my deepest distrust is not of religions per se (since, to repeat, these are many and varied in form, and then good and bad in parts), but more specifically, for the seemingly numberless religious organs we call creeds, sects, churches and so on.
To contend that religion is always about power is to miss the bigger picture, as I hope I’ve satisfactorily shown, and yet… It would be wise for the sheep to beware the shepherd. This much agreed, however, I feel sure that religion, in some wiser form, still has an important role to play in many of our individual lives and for the sake of all our futures. You may be surprised to learn that George Orwell thought similarly, and made his opinion felt in his essay Notes on the Way (an essay which, at intervals, I shall return to later):
… Marx’s famous saying that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is habitually wrenched out of its context and given a meaning subtly but appreciably different from the one he gave it. Marx did not say, at any rate in that place, that religion is merely a dope handed out from above; he said that it is something the people create for themselves to supply a need that he recognized to be a real one. ‘Religion is the sigh of the soul in a soulless world. Religion is the opium of the people.’ What is he saying except that man does not live by bread alone, that hatred is not enough, that a world worth living in cannot be founded on ‘realism’ and machine-guns? If he had foreseen how great his intellectual influence would be, perhaps he would have said it more often and more loudly. 21
Addendum: mind over matter
Physicists speak about a ‘quantum theory’ but when asked what the physical reality this ‘theory’ describes is truly like, they have no useful or consistent answers at all. It works, they say, and at a mathematical level is the most precise ‘theory’ so far devised, so “shut up and calculate!” Or, if you prefer (with apologies to Shelley): look upon our quantum works and do not despair… certainly not about any gaps in our understanding about the true nature of reality that may or may not underlie it. This non-philosophical culture was the norm by the time I went to university; an opinion that was seldom if ever challenged and thus easily instilled.
Of course, quantum reality does come as a shock at first. I had genuinely felt an acute anxiety on first hearing of Schrödinger’s poor cat forever half-dead in her box. Not that we ever learnt about the famous thought experiment in class of course: no, physics abandoned Schrödinger’s cat to her interminable state of limbo long ago. Any underlying ontology was reading for pleasure only; a late-night topic for post-pub discussions.
But physics is mistaken in its beliefs. It has mixed up its modern ignorance with ultimate incomprehensibility. Schrödinger’s cat was actually meant to shock us all: most importantly, to wake up all those physicists who chose to interpret the abstraction as the world itself and decide without proof that nothing of reality exists beyond it. But we have incorporated the semi-corporeal cat into the mix of quantum oddities: as evidence of our unreal reality when the whole point was that such quantum half-death is absurd.
Moreover, what physicists today describe as ‘quantum theory’ is not strictly a theory at all but actually just a powerful predictive recipe and an engineering tool, whereas a genuine theory is yet to be written: the true quest for it is disguised by language again, because this potential future theory is what physicists currently sideline under the label ‘interpretations’ – as if they don’t much matter.
Professor of Philosopher at NYU, Tim Maudlin, explains the problem with quantum theory today and how the foundations of quantum mechanics should be understood (please ignore the perturbing observable in the background!):
Although the notion that consciousness plays a key role in quantum mechanics was seriously considered by many of the scientific luminaries of the early Twentieth Century including John von Neumann who discussed its salient role in his treatise The Mathematical Foundations of Quantum Mechanics, such interpretations have since fallen mostly out of favour (certainly amongst physicists). More recent empirical findings are however just beginning to challenge this scientific orthodoxy and may indeed rock the assertion that there is an inherent distinction between what I above called “quantum choice” and our conscious choice. In fact in contradiction to what I originally wrote, some of the latest studies are producing results that show astonishingly high correlation between conscious intention and the so-called “collapse” of the wave function.
The last word (of this chapter – not the subject!) I shall leave to Freeman Dyson:
I cannot help but think that the awareness of our brains has something to do with the process that we call “observation” in atomic physics. That is to say, I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when they are made by electrons.
Please note that for the purposes of ‘publishing’ here I have taken advantage of the option to incorporate hypertext links and embed videos – in order to distinguish additional commentary from the original text all newly incorporated text has been italised.
1 Not quite true actually. Apparently my father was one of a small number who decided not to bother watching the first men step onto the moon’s surface. He tells me that he was so sure they would make it, he couldn’t see the point. My mother watched, and apparently so did I, although still not two years old. I can’t say that I remember anything about the moment, and probably found it a lot less interesting than Bill and Ben The Flowerpot Men, but perhaps it affected me on some deeper level — could it be that seeing the first moon landing at such a tender age was part of the reason I ended up studying comets?
2 Radiation pressure is the consequence of light itself (photons) having momentum.
3 A process that releases energy to the surroundings in the form of work as opposed to endergonic, which means energy consuming. These terms are closely related to exothermic and endothermic, where energy release and absorption take the form of heat transfer.
4 Karl Popper’s precise “line of demarcation” was that, if any theory can be shown to be falsifiable, then it can usefully be described as scientific.
“The totality of true propositions is the whole of natural science (or the whole corpus of the natural sciences).”
— Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 4.11
“The whole modern conception of the world is founded on the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena. Thus people today stop at the laws of nature, treating them as something inviolable, just as God and Fate were treated in past ages. And in fact both were right and both wrong; though the view of the ancients is clearer insofar as they have an acknowledged terminus, while the modern system tries to make it look as if everything were explained.” — Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.371-2.
7 In German: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.”
8 “the truth of the thoughts that are here communicated seems to me unassailable and definitive.” Taken from the preface to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
9 In this first treatise of Wittgenstein (which was the only one he ever published – his later philosophy contained in “The Philosophical Investigations” being published posthumously), he begins with the totally unsupported and deeply contentious assertion that, in effect, all meaningful language involves a description, or more correctly a depiction, of fact. This follows because the use of all language involves a correlation between objects in the world and names for those objects. This is his so-called “picture theory of language” which requires, Wittgenstein claims, a one-to-one correspondence between names and objects. This given, he demonstrates that if any proposition is to be genuine it must have a definite sense, or to put it differently, for a statement to admit to any test of proof then it must at least be possible for that question to be set out absolutely clearly. For Wittgenstein this means that questions about ethics, aesthetics and theology fall outside the realm of philosophy; the reason being that they rely on words such as “goodness”, “beauty”, “truth” and “god” which have no clear one-to-one correspondence. Wittgenstein of course later changed his mind on some of this. Recognising that his picture theory was overly simplistic he returned to philosophy with a radically new idea. That the meaning of language is contained in its social usage, thereby reassigning the work of philosophers to the study of language within its natural social environment. The purpose of philosophy was now to untie the knots of these so-called “language games”. But it is easy to mistake him here – and many do – his notion being that science can properly be understood and appraised only by those who know its language, religion likewise, and so on. And not that all inquiry is merely a matter of “playing with words”.
10 The Varieties of Religious Experience: a Study in Human Nature by William James, Longmans, Green & co, 1902; from a lecture series.
13 Ibid. Italics maintained from the original source.
14 Ibid. James earlier says, “It is absurd for science to say that the egotistic elements of experience should be suppressed. The axis of reality runs solely through the egotistic places, – they are strung upon it like so many beads.”
15 Genesis Ch.22 tells how God commanded Abraham to go to the land of Moriah and to there offer up his own son Isaac as a sacrifice. The patriarch travels three days until finally he comes to the mountain, just as God had instructed, and there he tells his servant to remain until he and Isaac have ascended the mountain. Isaac, who is given the task of carrying the wood on which he will soon be sacrificed, repeatedly asks his father why there is no animal for the burnt offering. On each occasion, Abraham says that God will provide one. Finally, as Abraham draws his knife and prepares to slaughter his son, an angel stops him. Happily, a ram has been provided and it can now be sacrificed in place of Isaac.
16 This is sometimes called “the riddle of Epicurus” or “the Epicurean Paradox” even though Epicurus did not in fact leave behind any written record of this statement. The first record of it appears some four hundred or more years after and in a work by the early Christian writer Lactantius who is actually criticising the argument.
17 Freeman Dyson is undoubtedly one of the greatest scientists never to win the Nobel Prize. However, he was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1966 and Max Planck medal in 1969. In March 2000 he was also awarded the Templeton Prize. Created in 1972 by the investor, Sir John Templeton, in an attempt to remedy what he saw as an oversight by the Nobel Prizes, which do not honour the discipline of religion. Previous Templeton Prize recipients have included the Rev. Dr. Billy Graham, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Charles Colson, Ian Barbour, Paul Davies, physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsacker, and Mother Teresa.
18 Extracts from Freeman Dyson ‘s acceptance speech for the award of the Templeton Prize, delivered on May 16, 2000 at the Washington National Cathedral.
19 From an interview conducted in 1987 by American journalist Bill Moyers as six-part series of conversations with Joseph Campbell entitled Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The quote is taken from Episode 2, ‘The Message of the Myth’ broadcast on June 26, 1988. The full transcript is available here: https://billmoyers.com/content/ep-2-joseph-campbell-and-the-power-of-myth-the-message-of-the-myth/
20 It is even tempting to envisage some grand union of these two ancient Chinese philosophies, called Zow!-ism perhaps.
21 Extract taken from Notes on the Way by George Orwell, first published in Time and Tide. London, 1940.