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Reprise: Experience and Awe in the Science v. Religion Debate

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankMarch 12, 2008 8:17 PM


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Before touching on any new subjects in this ongoing discussion about transcending the traditional science v. religion debate, I thought it would be good to reprise some themes and keep the narrative quasi-linear. A month or so ago, I tried to lay the groundwork for getting past the usual categories in the way we publicly discuss science and religion (what I called the Sullen, the Silly, and the Snarky). The usual debates about creationism/evolution or quantum mechanics/New Age philosophy miss the point: Which direction do we turn now? A number of alternatives are beginning to emerge as researchers struggle to find some balance. There is, for example, the religious naturalism of Ursula Goodenough and others in which the narratives of science, free of supernatural agents, are seen as an appropriate source of "religious feeling." There is the reinvention of the sacred of Stuart Kauffman, in which nature’s fundamental non-reductionism allows for a creative universe. Other researchers are exploring other avenues. Some of these I agree with, and some I do not. But taken as a whole, you can see creative people are thinking creatively and it’s leading in new directions. These perspectives may not all stay with us, but nonetheless their explication is a good thing. My own direction has been to look to aspiration. Aspiration is what I call the Constant Fire. The aspiration to know what is true and what is real is, I believe, an ancient imperative in us. We stumbled into self-consciousness a hundred thousand or so years ago and slowly awakened to our interior responses to the external world. When an experience of the world took us beyond concerns about mere survival, when an experience made the world’s elemental presence, its Being, stand out on its own, then we encountered life's "sacred" character. These experiences were hierophanies: gateways to that sense of the world’s innermost luminous nature. The aspiration to draw closer to the barely expressible content of those experiences is the source of the strenuous effort that can manifest as a scientific investigation, the creation of art, poetry, music, or perhaps an engagement in some form of "spiritual life." The aspiration, born of experience, to know and draw closer to the immediate and intimate cosmos is the root of it all. Make no mistake: Science and spiritual endeavor are not the same. They function differently, ask very different questions, and demand different kinds of attention. But in a common aspiration we can find them drawing into an active, parallel complementarity. That, I believe, is a different and better way of thinking about science and religion than endlessly throwing mud pies over evolution, creationism, and some group's definition of deity.

Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

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