Science, Religion, and the Mystery Train

Reality BaseBy Adam FrankMar 16, 2008 7:33 PM


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On Friday I had the opportunity to record a bloggingheads divalog with A.I. expert Eliezer Yudkowsky. It was a great exchange. While I still need to learn how to deal with the medium (you talk on the phone while recording video of just yourself—I ended up talking over Eliezer a bunch of times; he was very patient) it got me thinking about a variety of topics. One place in which Eliezer and I were strongly in disagreement was the definition of the word "mystery." What brought me into science was a strong sense that this whole "life" thing was very weird. As I have gotten older, I have come to respect that strangeness. The bare presence of things just comes to us day in and day out. That is what I mean by mystery. Nothing supernatural, just the irreducible "activity" or presence of being that no explanation, no description will wave away. Rather than write any more myself, let me throw down the words of others on this great subject. From Albert Einstein:

The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.

From the biologist Ursula Goodenough:

We are all, each one of us, ordained to live out our lives in the context of ultimate questions such as:

Why is there anything at all rather than nothing?

Where do the laws of physics come from?

Why does the Universe seem so strange?

My response to such questions has been to articulate a covenant with mystery. Others of course prefer answers, answers that often include a concept of God. These answers are by definition beliefs because they can neither be proven nor refuted…. The opportunity to develop personal beliefs in response to questions of ultimacy, including the active decision to hold no beliefs at all, is central to the human experience. The important part, I believe, is that the questions be openly encountered. To take the Universe on—to ask Why Are Things As They Are—is to generate the foundation for everything else. [Emphasis added.]

Why does the Universe feel so strange? The more I learn about it through science, art, and all the other ways human beings come to know, the more delightfully strange it feels. And that, as the poets say, is a mystery to be lived, not a question to be answered.

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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