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Why Science Has Produced the Most Spiritual Idea in History

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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With Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey now in its second broadcast week, the number of discussions generated online seems high enough to compete with the number of stars in our galaxy. I’m exaggerating, but you realize this if you have a cosmic perspective. Even so, the diversity of reactions to this next generation of Carl Sagan’s classic series is staggering, especially with respect to the ongoing tensions between science and organized religion. My personal journey through the Twitterverse revealed mostly satisfied viewers after the first episode, Standing Up in the Milky Way, but the episode also had some critics.

The biggest surprise came from the non-religious end of the spectrum. A few avid and vocal atheists wrote that they loved the fancy, new Cosmic Calendar, but were frustrated that Moses and some other biblical characters were included. We might as easily include characters from the Iliad, someone on my timeline suggested (for that matter, one could ask for inclusion of Surak of Vulcan who lived 1,700 years ago in the Star Trek backstory). I think they missed the point about the time scale, but it doesn’t matter. After the second episode, Some of the Things That Molecules Do, nobody on the non-religious side had any complaints.

Mostly, the criticism has come from the usual suspects. There have been inane tweets from evolution deniers, saying that Cosmos host astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson needs to read the biblical story of Genesis. There are the “God of the gaps” people; they embrace science programs and have no problem with evolution from early microorganisms to the current tree of life (including humans), but claim a supernatural cause for big questions that we haven’t yet answered: how life emerged from non-living molecules, what caused the Big Bang, and why the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This thinking helps science and religion to co-exist in our culture, but it’s the same thinking that supported the flying chariot of Helios to explain the Sun’s movement, before science discovered gravity and orbits.

Even so, I can understand why so many people find it compelling to hover in this middle zone. Shedding the tales that our ancestors conceived around the campfire and replacing them fully with science usually takes a few generations. When I was a child, my grandfather, a freethinker, skeptical of the claims of organized religion, used to rave about a book that posited natural events underlying the ten plagues in the biblical story of Exodus. The same book also said that the two creation stories in Genesis were intended to be allegorical, that if you follow the sequence of events they tell the story of evolution. In reality, the creation stories are not much of an allegory for anything that science has elucidated; Genesis 1 and 2 do not even agree with one another, much less with evolutionary history as revealed in the fossil record, and in the analysis of genetic sequences across the three domains of terrestrial life. But the intension of that 20th century author and others who wrote similar works was probably to wean people from biblical literalism. In that regard, they succeeded, at least for a big chunk of the American population.

Bronze statue of Giordano Bruno by Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Campo de' Fiori, Rome. / Credit: Jastrow via Wikimedia Commons

That big chunk of the American population does not include the 26 percent that, according to a recent survey of 2,200 people conducted by the National Science Foundation, believes that the Sun goes around Earth. Like the original Cosmos, the new series can do a lot more for the other 74 percent who agree that Earth is a planet and the Sun a star, but might not be able to explain how we came to know this.

After the first episode of the new Cosmos, some critics took issue with the story of the 16th century monk, Giordano Bruno. Burned at the stake for heresy by the Catholic Church, Bruno is cast into a role similar to that of Hypatia in the original Cosmos series. The last director of the great library of Alexandria in Egypt, Hypatia was a Greek pagan astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, and a staunch defender of science. Chased down by a mob of angry Christians, who then flayed her to death and dragged her naked body through the streets, Hypatia is the quintessential science martyr, and her story in the original Cosmos is chilling.

Although Bruno was not a scientist, the new Cosmos highlights him because he believed the Sun to be a star, and the stars to be suns with their own planets, populated by intelligent beings. Suggesting that Bruno might not have been the best choice for a Cosmos protagonist, Corey S. Powell, a senior editor at Discover and adjunct professor of science journalism at NYU, has set off a fascinating debate between himself and Steven Soter, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural history and NYU, who co-wrote the new series with Ann Druyan (Druyan and Soter also co-wrote the original series together with Sagan).

The debate between Soter and Powell continues and is complex, but we can expect that Bruno’s story will foreshadow events in upcoming episodes involving others whose ideas about the cosmos upset the religious establishment. In the centuries after Bruno, the Church and other religious institutions continued to resist new ideas about the planets, stars and life, but eventually most gave in as the population became more educated and as the evidence from science accumulated. Like wolves, bears, and primitive eyes, religion evolves by Darwinian selection, but it’s evolving too slowly to keep up with science.

Pointing to a recent Pew poll that showed a dramatic decline in religious affiliation in younger generations, a friend of mine said she thought that people still want their tribal affiliation and spirituality. I’ve heard similar things from humanistic rabbis, who say that it’s a reason why Jews should at least consider dating other Jews, and leaders of other groups have said similar things. It’s about identifying with your people and ancestral culture, they suggest, and it’s about feeling part of something bigger than yourself.

I totally get the cultural part; it’s nice if you don’t have to teach the mayim dance to a person you’re dating. But if spirituality now means understanding that we are part of something much bigger, I think that science can do a lot more for us in that area. In the second episode of Cosmos, Tyson said, “Accepting our kinship with all life on Earth is not only solid science. In my view, it’s also a soaring spiritual experience.” I think so too, but it goes further.

Sagan talked about Einstein believing in Spinoza’s God, who permeated the cosmos rather than transcending it and therefore was synonymous with nature. Taken in context of our current science, such a God is the primordial hydrogen atoms, cooked into heavier elements by nuclear fusion within stars, and turned into us through billions of years of chemical and biological evolution. That’s what it means that we’re made of star stuff.

In the new series, we learned how the evolution of the eye occurred in numerous steps over hundreds of millions of years. In the old series, it was described as the cosmos learning to see, just as the evolution of ears was the cosmos learning to hear, and the same idea holds for the brain. There is an intelligence to the universe, but it’s not the cause of creation; it’s the result.

These were Sagan’s thoughts back then, and now they are our thoughts, because he communicated them so effectively. We are the cosmos getting to know itself. We figured it out because of science, and it’s the most spiritual idea that the cosmos has ever conceived.

David Warmflash About the Author: David Warmflash, M.D. is an astrobiologist, science writer, physician, and citizen of the cosmos. Follow on Twitter @cosmicevolution.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 25 Comments

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  1. 1. tuned 10:13 am 03/22/2014

    I like my religion (Utopian). It is very realistic yet moral.
    I like science.
    When either religion or science get pompous and/or immoral they disgust me however.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bgrnathan 10:27 am 03/22/2014

    SCIENCE SHOWS THAT THE UNIVERSE CANNOT BE ETERNAL because it could not have sustained itself eternally due to the law of entropy (increasing net energy decay, even in an open system). Einstein showed that space, matter, and time all are physical and all had a beginning. Space even produces particles because it’s actually something, not nothing. Even time had a beginning! Time is not eternal.

    The law of entropy doesn’t allow the universe to be eternal. If the universe were eternal, everything, including time (which modern science has shown is as physical as mass and space), would have become totally entropied by now and the entire universe would have ended in a uniform heat death a long, long time ago. The fact that this hasn’t happened already is powerful evidence for a beginning to the universe.

    Popular atheistic scientist Stephen Hawking admits that the universe had a beginning and came from nothing but he believes that nothing became something by a natural process yet to be discovered. That’s not rational thinking at all, and it also would be making the effect greater than its cause to say that nothing created something. The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing. What about the Higgs boson (the so-called “God Particle”)? The Higgs boson does not create mass from nothing, but rather it converts energy into mass. Einstein showed that all matter is some form of energy.

    The supernatural cannot be proved by science but science points to a supernatural intelligence and power for the origin and order of the universe. Where did God come from? Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.

    EXPLAINING HOW AN AIRPLANE WORKS doesn’t mean no one made the airplane. Explaining how life or the universe works doesn’t mean there was no Maker behind them. Natural laws may explain how the order in the universe works and operates, but mere undirected natural laws cannot explain the origin of that order. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic code and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM.

    WHAT IS SCIENCE? Science simply is knowledge based on observation. No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith. The issue is which faith the scientific evidence best supports.

    Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    An example of a true prima facie would be if you discovered an elaborate sand castle on the beach. You don’t have to experiment to know that it came by design and not by the chance forces of wind and water.

    If you discovered a romantic letter or message written in the sand, you don’t have to experiment to know that it was by design and not because a stick randomly carried by wind put it there. You naturally assume that an intelligent and rational being was responsible.

    I encourage all to read my popular Internet articles: NATURAL LIMITS TO EVOLUTION and HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

    Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

    Babu G. Ranganathan*
    (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    *I have given successful lectures (with question and answer period afterwards) defending creation before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities. I’ve been privileged to be recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East” for my writings on religion and science.

    Link to this
  3. 3. GregRobert 11:11 am 03/22/2014

    @bgrnathan

    Your entire argument is what’s called “cherry picking”.

    Look it up.

    -greg

    Link to this
  4. 4. abolitionist 11:19 am 03/22/2014

    “Genesis 1 and 2 do not even agree with one another, much less with evolutionary history as revealed in the fossil record”

    That’s because those are two quite different creation stories in Genesis. Why would you expect them to agree?

    Link to this
  5. 5. tuned 11:20 am 03/22/2014

    @bgrnathan :

    SPAM you pasted that is identical to another fanatical post you made in SA today.

    Link to this
  6. 6. KJF123 1:31 pm 03/22/2014

    So what is “the Most Spiritual Idea in History”. I didn’t see it in the article. Did I miss it?
    TIA

    Link to this
  7. 7. BookSpine 7:14 pm 03/22/2014

    @4. abolitionist

    By implying they should, and then claiming (correctly) that they don’t, the author can slight both, which he feels needs to be done.

    Thus, “In reality, the creation stories are not much of an allegory for anything that science has elucidated; Genesis 1 and 2 do not even agree with one another, much less with evolutionary history as revealed in the fossil record, and in the analysis of genetic sequences across the three domains of terrestrial life.”

    Link to this
  8. 8. ecstatist 3:05 am 03/23/2014

    I wish somebody could define: religious, superstitious, spiritual or more importantly what the differences are between these 3 adjectives, besides the spelling (sic). Good luck!

    Link to this
  9. 9. shagsnacks 7:52 am 03/23/2014

    The author doesn’t hide his contempt for religion. I often find that those who don’t see evidence for God are intelligent enough to form opinions about the subject.

    I don’t really know what bgrnathan is talking about, but I got to thinking the other day about the Second Law of Thermodynamics and LaPlace’s demon the other day. (LaPlace’s Demon could just as easily be thought of as God).

    From God’s standpoint, there is no such thing as time. If you know everything about an object (it’s velocity, resistance, etc) then you know everything about the state of the object at every point in time. It is only because we are in a microscopic state (compared to the scale of the universe).

    Here’s my question. If you accept that humans live in a microscopic state where information is lost (due to entropy production) doesn’t that also imply that there is a macroscopic state where information is not lost? Macroscopic systems have to exist because of microscopic systems, from what we see in physics. Microscopic systems (atoms, quarks) arrange into different arrangements as entropy is produced before reaching thermodynamic equilibrium. The very fact that we have macroscopic states is because we have an almost infinite amount of atoms that can be arranged an almost infinite amount. Simply put, microstates can not exist without macrostates. The very fact that we are a microstate proves that a macrostate exists. Now some would argue that universe itself is that state and that it is not alive. Yet others argue that there are possibly infinite universes.

    If there are an untold number of universes, could those universes form some form of higher intelligence?

    Just some thoughts from a devoted Christian and scientist..

    Link to this
  10. 10. tuned 9:18 am 03/23/2014

    The discounting of God, or of no god, simply proves closed mindedness.

    Link to this
  11. 11. anumakonda.jagadeesh 9:23 am 03/23/2014

    Excellent article.

    “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” – Albert Einstein.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Link to this
  12. 12. MultiWoman 12:17 pm 03/23/2014

    I often wonder why some people feel the need to attack and denigrate other theories when advancing their own, rather than to let the improved descriptive and explanatory capabilities of their theories demonstrate their superiority.

    Link to this
  13. 13. logistics101 12:37 pm 03/23/2014

    real science and Christianity are compatible. but when religion starts to deny true scientific inquiry as was done in the middle ages then obviously that train of thought is wrong. by the same token, when science comes up with a theory or “fact” that questions GOD’s existence then they are on the wrong track and their supposition is just not factual at all. GOD is real and true science can be very beneficial to mankind.

    Link to this
  14. 14. abolitionist 1:47 pm 03/23/2014

    @BookSpine

    “By implying they should, and then claiming (correctly) that they don’t, the author can slight both, which he feels needs to be done.”

    Good point. I hadn’t thought of this as another hit piece.

    Link to this
  15. 15. jsweck 2:10 pm 03/23/2014

    “I wish somebody could define: religious, superstitious, spiritual…”
    Sure, but you have to understand myths as well.

    Perceiving the world with a myth in your mind…
    When people believe big erroneous things, and get together with other people that have the same problem, we call it a mythology. The people in this group don’t actually see the objects of their myth, but they believe they see the influence of their myth everywhere.
    So if you believe in Neptune for instance, you won’t see him actually sloshing down Main St., but you will see Neptune’s watery ways, or powers, influencing all the things you know about. Neptune slowly becomes very important. That’s because each time you learn a new thing, Neptune’s effects must be accounted for. So for each new thing you learn, you must explain to yourself how it’s affected by what you know about Neptune. When people write down these explanations, you get something called doctrine. So, subject by subject, as you educate yourself, Neptune is painstakingly incorporated into your mind. It doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to explain Neptune in your life.
    Once Neptune is firmly embedded in your mind, you will interpret your world as if Neptune is actually there. It becomes obvious that Neptune exists, and influences all things. Each wave has Neptunic meaning. Two waves coming in at the same time becomes a sign of great importance. Water can’t splash from your cup without Neptune’s endless influence, or sacredness. Enlightenment no longer means gaining knowledge – it now means being trapped reinterpreting the known world to fit Neptune everywhere. In fact, the world seems incomplete without this doctrine, “To tell the rest of the story…the most important part – Neptune!”
    At the end of your life, you will see Neptune as filling the entire universe, embedded in all the concepts of your mind, and proclaim to whoever will listen, “Neptune is everywhere!”

    Some definitions – a religious person has a standardized core mythology shared by many people; a superstitious person has a kind of personal “mythology”, and a spiritual person has a core mythology revolving around soul belief.

    Link to this
  16. 16. MarsExplorer7 4:55 pm 03/24/2014

    Nice article!

    “I wish somebody could define: religious, superstitious, spiritual or more importantly what the differences are between these 3 adjectives, besides the spelling (sic)..” Good point..the author is making use the vocabulary of people who’ve mostly given up religion but make excuses to hold onto it.

    Notice he says “IF spirituality now means understanding that we are part of something much bigger, I think that science can do a lot more for us in that area.” It’s making sure to be clear he doesn’t mean spiritual in the sense of spirits and ghosts, but just lack of a better word.

    Clearly he’s trying to reach people from his own culture like liberal Jews, people raised with remnants of Christianity, Kabbalah readers, etc. In other words, educated people who know they don’t believe the myths but might pay lip service to them and use the word “spiritual” connected with being part of something bigger. IMO, it’s more useful than arguing against fundamentalists like many outspoken atheists do today.

    Link to this
  17. 17. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:16 am 03/25/2014

    The problem with some ‘science popularizers’ is that they treat science only as a tool to fight religion.

    Perhaps you could write a piece about anti-scientific history of anti-religious movement. Lysenkoism, anyone?

    Link to this
  18. 18. jgrosay 11:56 am 03/25/2014

    Hi!: I’d say adding the image of the Giordano Bruno’s statute to an article about the spiritual yield of Science is a bit unfair towards religion, specially Roman Catholic.
    Giordano Bruno was not send to stake because of his endorsement of Heliocentrism, that as a matter of fact was a very minor issue in his statements, but because of having said that Jesus Christ was not the Son of the Almighty, but a especially skillful magician, that Devil will be saved, and others things alike, he also endorsed some kind of Pantheism, akin to mysteric, initiatic and esoteric cults: Eleusys, Hermetism, Alchemy, the demiurge’s cults, Naturalisms…
    One of the proposers of pantheist ideas was Baruc Spinoza, and one among those adopting ideas close to the ones of Spinoza was the Nazi party.

    Link to this
  19. 19. Dr. Strangelove 10:10 pm 03/25/2014

    Babu

    “The beginning had to be of supernatural origin because natural laws and processes do not have the ability to bring something into existence from nothing.”

    What makes you think supernatural can bring something into existence from nothing? Faith?

    “Obviously, unlike the universe, God’s nature doesn’t require a beginning.”

    Says who? Faith?

    “how could life or the cell have naturally originated when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature?”

    Same physical and chemical laws that form crystals and animo acids. Do you believe crystals and animo acids have supernatural origin?

    “No one observed the universe coming by chance or by design, by creation or by evolution. These are positions of faith.”

    You can observe the cosmic microwave background radiation on your TV screen in between channels if you have an antenna. That’s evidence of the Big Bang. You can observe fossils in museums. That’s evidence of evolution.

    You cannot observe any designer and creator. These are positions of faith.

    “Some things don’t need experiment or scientific proof. In law there is a dictum called prima facie evidence. It means “evidence that speaks for itself.”

    In science, the evidence speaks for itself. In positions of faith, the lack of evidence speaks for itself.

    Link to this
  20. 20. rspill 3:03 am 03/26/2014

    Thanks for the perspective. Nicely done.

    Link to this
  21. 21. Colorblind 3:21 pm 03/26/2014

    I got more out of watching Mr Peabody and Sherman.

    Link to this
  22. 22. roseave 4:03 pm 03/26/2014

    I have been surprised, but nonetheless interested, in the many ways that the new Cosmos series has been a polymic to contrast science and religion/faith. I had remembered the original series to be more an exposition of the current state of science, including concepts of cosmology that were perhaps little known by the general public at the time. Without re-watching, I may be misremembering.

    But this new series is very assertive in undermining “creationism”, both physical and biological. Perhaps this is warranted by the surprising persistence and even growth in the anti-science viewpoints of today’s America. My question is, is it getting through?

    What do we know of the size and demographics of the audience for the current series? And what do we know of the reaction of the “poorly-informed and mislead”, which are the obvious target of much of this series? I have the feeling that a much smaller proportion of the public is watching this series, given the dispersed nature of today’s media.

    Of course, showings of this series over time — in classrooms and perhaps on public television could eventually reach a larger audience — but I would love to know the producers expected “conversion rate”, both in terms of percentage of viewers and total numbers. And, now, what is the real world experience. Isn’t it obvious to all that “conversion” of the “faithful” is a major aim of this series?

    Link to this
  23. 23. Frisbee 3:51 am 03/27/2014

    For an excellent account of the history of cosmology, check out “The Great Ptolemaic Smackdown” by O’Floinn.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Germanicus 9:33 am 03/28/2014

    The multiverse, infinite by definition, dispatches the entropy argument & ‘N’ others…drop telos, amigo, & think about it…

    Link to this
  25. 25. hkraznodar 4:40 pm 03/31/2014

    @Dr. Strangelove – I do indeed see the noise in the background TV signal. I don’t view that as proof of the Big Bang. I view it as proof the galaxy is really noisy.

    Otherwise, well said as always.

    Link to this

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