Science, Spirituality, Exteriority and Interiority
Rui Umezawa-October 6, 2010: Two recent news stories once again brought attention to the continuing tension between spirituality and science, worldviews that often resemble siblings constantly competing for our approval.
The first centered on the much-anticipated release of The Grand Design, the latest book by iconic British theoretician Stephen Hawking. Co-authored by Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow, the instant bestseller (as of this writing, The Grand Design is no. 2 on the New York Times non-fiction hardcover list) suggests that “the universe does not have just a single existence or history, but rather every possible version of the universe exists simultaneously.”
From The Cosmic Jackpot, Paul Davies’ 2007 book which examines possible reasons why our physical laws are the way they are, to countless popular science fiction narratives dating back at least to the early 1960s – who could forget the evil Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock? – the “multiverse” as a concept is not completely unfamiliar to us. What made the release of The Grand Design such a breakthrough marketing triumph, however, was how the internationally celebrated co-authors stated in an excerpt printed in the Times of London that: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” In other words, no one lit the fuse that set off the Big Bang.
The media did not hesitate to take the bait. “Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe,” proclaimed both CNN and theBBC. “Hawking book says the universe was created spontaneously,” said The Toronto Star. The Telegraph was more careful to reflect the nuance of Hawking and Mlodinow’s statement, saying, “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe”.
To the popular spiritualist Deepak Chopra, however, the gauntlet had been thrown. In a review of The Grand Design published on his official Website as well as The Huffington Post, he wrote: “…when Hawking made worldwide news recently by declaring that ‘it is not necessary to invoke God… to set the Universe going,’ a blow was struck for the noisy camp of atheists while the world of devout believers had one more reason — this time a crushing one — to consider science as the enemy of religion.”
Reactions were equally widespread to the report last month of researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado at Boulder declaring that the movement of wind could explain the miracle of Moses parting the Red Sea as described in the Bible (Exodus 13:17-14:29). In fact, their study suggests it was not the Red Sea that the Israelites crossed, but a location 75 miles north of the Suez reef and just south of the Mediterranean Sea, where a branch of the Nile River flowed into a coastal lagoon.
“There is some controversy over the body of water they crossed,” Carl Drews of NCAR, the lead author of the study, told Discovery News. “The Exodus text says in Hebrew yam suf, (which) literally means ‘Sea of Reeds.’” This description reportedly fits the area he and his team studied, a broad lake full of papyrus reeds. The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research news release described the experiment and its results:
An extensive analysis of archaeological records, satellite measurements, and current-day maps enabled the research team to estimate the water flow and depth that may have existed 3,000 years ago. [The researchers] then used a specialized ocean computer model to simulate the impact of an overnight wind at that site.
They found that a wind of 63 miles an hour, lasting for 12 hours, would have pushed back waters estimated to be six feet deep. This would have exposed mud flats for four hours, creating a dry passage about 2 to 2.5 miles long and 3 miles wide. The water would be pushed back into both the lake and the channel of the river, creating barriers of water on both sides of newly exposed mud flats.
As soon as the winds stopped, the waters would come rushing back, much like a tidal bore. Anyone still on the mud flats [i.e., the Egyptians] would be at risk of drowning.*
The media again pounced at the opposition between religion and science. “Moses might not have parted the Red Sea,” the lead to the article by Reuters began. “New research suggests,” reported The Guardian, “that the famous parting could have been a natural occurrence, rather than divine intervention.” The Guardian’s editors later reflected on why such an experiment was even necessary. “Why replace a miracle that has captured Christian, Muslim and Rastafarian imaginations with a tale of fluid dynamics?” its editorial later asked. “If the aim is to put the whole Moses tale on a scientific footing, it is a doomed enterprise.”
Science and religion – and by extension, spirituality – historically have been at odds for centuries, as commonly exemplified by the Spanish Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo. Isaac Newton reportedly held onto his belief in a supreme creator – his scientific observations notwithstanding – while Charles Darwin expressed increasing doubt in his religion as he grew older, despite having once studied theology at University of Cambridge with the aim of subsequently joining the clergy. Clearly in this century and the last, science has overpowered spirituality in terms of popular credibility. Indeed, spiritualists who have little or no science background routinely couch their teachings in scientific terms, apparently for the sake of attracting an otherwise skeptical audience – one recent, highly visible example being the tremendously successful but scientifically suspicious film What the Bleep Do We Know? (in which Chopra was prominently featured).
But is it even necessary to consider these worldviews as diametric opposites? Even attempts to merge these perspectives by such authors as Fritjof Capra of The Tao of Physics first must assume such an opposition exists, which may not be the case.
While I am not completely comfortable with the hierarchical and evolutionary worldview presented by American philosopher Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, I believe he is absolutely correct in differentiating the empirically observable exterior world from the observable but not empirically presentable interiority. “You can point to the brain,” he says in his celebrated manifesto A Brief History of Everything, “or to a rock, or to a town, but you cannot simply point to envy, or pride, or consciousness, or value, or intention, or desire.” In other words, he differentiates between the neurological synaptic activities that may result in an emotion and the emotion itself. In a grander scale, it is the difference between the linguistic mechanism of a given society, and what is evoked in speakers of that language when a specific term is uttered. Because interior phenomena cannot be empirically observed, he adds, they must be interpreted. Finally, he adds that this interpretation can and must be conducted with the same discipline and adherence to reason as science devotes to empirical observation.
This is not to say all aspects of religion are interior. On the contrary, its organization and political activities can and should fall under the scrutiny of external scholars such as historians, political scientists and economists. At the same time, myths ranging from Genesis to Christ’s Resurrection can also, in all fairness, become the subject of scientific speculation. To be frank, if yours is a rigidly literal and fundamentalist religious view, I’m afraid you will either have to adhere adamantly to an irrational and self-centred concept of the divine, or watch helplessly as science robs it of all grace.
On the other hand, what these traditional narratives and myths mean to us, both as a society and as individuals, is something science cannot answer. This is in great part because such observations by nature become pluralistic (the glass is at once both half full and half empty) and science by definition observe phenomena from a single perspective founded on strictly formulated parameters. Such pluralistic interpretations, therefore, is the realm of spirituality.
Thus, in the end, whether or not the Red Sea literally parted is of little importance spiritually. At the same time, Hawking’s sophisticated science that produced the Godless multiverse cannot answer what then this all means. In truth, science does not even ask the question. Spirituality does, however, and even atheists must concede that they have asked the same question at one time or another in their lives. At such moments – although they may be reluctant to admit this – they were undertaking a spiritual activity.
Finally, traditional spiritualists should also take comfort in knowing that thinking in terms of event horizons and singularities does not take anything away from the teachings of Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Laozi or any other truly great sage. Regard spirituality simply as the awe felt by physicists and priests alike in observing a distant star, and their ancient wisdom take on a renewed resonance in the present day, when science is revealing so many wonders of which we all are part.