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Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Why Science Has Produced the Most Spiritual Idea in History


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.

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

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