Emerging Worldview: Science and Religion Working in Harmony

by Lal Baboolal

Questions being addressed in contemporary physics and cosmology have accelerated the marriage between particle physics and cosmology, and they have justified further development of a single theory to unify the four fundamental forces in nature: strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitational. More significant, scientists are now being forced to ask metascientific questions regarding origins and existence which were once thought by scientists to be more in the domain of religion. Evidence of this appears in several popular quasi-theological works by contemporary scientists such as Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Paul Davies' The Mind of God, Robert Jastrow's God and the Astronomers, and Amit Goswami's The Self-Aware Universe.

While individual scientists such as Einstein, Schrodinger, and Heisenberg "had a passionate interest in religious questions," according to physicist Henry Margenau, science itself has always kept at arm's length from religion. Likewise, in post-Newtonian times religions have generally remained aloof from science. Only in the late 1800s, with the founding of The Theosophical Society in the United States in 1875, did H. P. Blavatsky and her colleagues make a serious effort to bring about "the synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy" which culminated in the highly influential Secret Doctrine (1888). In light of these developments, it is a matter of great relevance to determine how contemporary scientists view the relation between religion and science; the origin of the universe, life, and homo sapiens; and the concept and existence of God. Such an attempt was made recently by two research scientists, Henry Margenau and Roy Varghese, who solicited by correspondence answers to these questions from several distinguished scientists. Their results are published in Cosmos, Bios, Theos (ed. by Henry Margenau and Ray Abraham Varghese, Open Court Publishing Company, La Salle, IL, 1992)

Described by the authors as "a portfolio of perspectives on the relationship between the scientific enterprise and the religious view of reality," the book is divided into four parts. Parts one and two present the responses from sixty eminent scientists -- at least 24 of whom are Nobel Laureates -- including astronomers, mathematicians, physicists, biologists, and chemists. Part three provides a debate between a prominent atheist and a popular theist; and part four includes essays dealing with origins and limitations of contemporary science. In addition, in the Introduction Roy Varghese establishes the frame of reference in which questions of origins, creation, and God are to be considered.

The book does not comprise a statistically significant survey of the religious beliefs of modern scientists; and admittedly many of the respondents are known to be religiously inclined or sympathetic towards a religious view of reality, although many modern scientists are atheists actively opposed to any form of religion. Even amongst the respondents, some simply had no interest in religion. In spite of these caveats, the authors justify the book's existence on the current high level of interest in cosmological questions with metaphysical implications; on the continuation of the "interface between science and religion" begun by some of the great pioneers of modern science; and on the mere "idea that an eminent scientist would affirm the existence of God on rational grounds . . . especially in view of the popular assumption that religious belief is an anachronism or an aberration in the Age of Science" (p. xiii).

It is noteworthy that these prominent scientists would present their answers and views, very personal views in many cases, on subjects which are still regarded as private in scientific and other quarters. Certainly questions of origin, science and religion, and God are dealt with openly today by highly credible researchers both within and outside of the scientific community. But their willingness may also derive from the esteem and trust with which the authors are held in the scientific community. Significantly, the authors present the full responses of the participants preceded by brief excerpts intended to highlight the essence of the participant's underlying thought or attitude. Except in the Introduction, there is no attempt to analyze the responses on any basis whatsoever.

The prevailing sentiments on the relation of religion and science are embodied in the response of Henry Margenau, himself a participant in the survey:

There exists a widespread view that regards science and religion in general as incompatible. . . . this belief may have been true half a century ago. . . .
. . . Big Bang, black holes, quantum theory, relativity, and the Anthropic Principle have introduced science to a world of awe and mystery that is not far removed from the ultimate mystery that drives the religious impulse. These twentieth-century trends seem to call for a new metaphor in describing the relationship of science and religion. -- pp. 57-8

Concerning the origin of the universe, the creation models offered by contemporary cosmological theories such as the Big Bang were overwhelmingly accepted in spite of identifiable inherent limitations. Thus, John Polkinghorne, President, Queen's College, Cambridge, observed: "It is even conceivable that the whole show originated from the vacuum. However, this would not be creation ex nihilo, . . . I accept the theistic doctrine of God the Creator . . . creation is not an act of the remote past but a continuing act of the divine will in every present moment" (p. 87).

On the origin of life, too, the current scientific theory that life originated from spontaneous fluctuation of precursor aggregates in a favorable physical environment -- was widely accepted as providing a plausible scientific explanation. However, it did not satisfy the metaphysical yearning. The Darwinian model of human evolution based on mutation and natural selection was also commonly accepted with modifications. Steven Bernasek, Professor of Chemistry, Princeton, noted: "The origin of Homo sapiens can't be distinguished mechanistically from the rest of the evolution process.... Individually, and in relation to a God, we must believe we are somehow unique" (p. 150).

Several scientists believed that science and scientists should treat questions of origins in the same scientific way any other questions are treated, but with some restrictions. For example, on contemporary scientific speculation Abdus Salam, 1979 Nobel Laureate in Physics, offered this prudent observation: "The scientist of today knows when and where he is speculating; he would claim no finality even for the associated modes of thought" (pp. 97-8). Speculation within science may be tolerable since it is subject to empirical verification. Metaphysical speculation on the other hand has neither such objective friend nor foe.

Most of the scientists who responded believed in some form of higher intelligence, divine entity, or creative thrust. The views of Jerome Karle, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 1985, echo those of most of the respondents: "If one wants to call the beauty and magnificence of nature and the highest creativity and ethical behavior of human beings as manifestations of what they mean by God, I can be comfortable with that. In that sense, the concept of God would be the composite of the highest experiences that man could perceive in his existence" (p. 183).

In summary, Cosmos, Bios, Theos provides stunning and revealing insights into the minds of many eminent contemporary scientists and into the core of scientific thinking regarding these questions.

Most of the participating scientists saw no conflict between science and religion, which they viewed as complementary and recognized from the outset that science was very limited in its methodology and domain of inquiry. Thus, while questions of origins (both of the universe and of life) were legitimate ones for science, ultimate answers cannot be provided by science alone. The absence of consciousness in cosmological models and the absence of "urge for life" in the origin of life models were regarded as major shortcomings in the scientific approach. Scientists were willing, however, to accept each other's established theories. Thus, chemists and biologists were willing to accept the Big Bang model as the most plausible theory of creation; and astronomers, physicists, and mathematicians were willing to accept the evolution models as the plausible scientific explanation for progressive development. The overwhelming majority of scientists accepted a higher intelligence, a divine being or its creative equivalent, as the mastermind designer and admitted that this framework of reality was derived from their own work, research, or life experience. It is obvious that science and religion play an important role in each other's existence and there is every indication (at least from the scientist's viewpoint) that this role will increase in importance, especially in seeking answers to fundamental questions.

The foregoing is very much in accord with theosophy which from the outset recognized that what was needed was a true synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy in order to adequately address the fundamental questions of existence and origins. Accordingly, theosophists have worked assiduously at synthesizing science and philosophy within the most exalted and noblest of religious thought. Some of today's leading scientists, such as Amit Goswami, have discussed at length the shortcomings of a science based on "material realism" and how it is possible to have a science based on consciousness (or "monistic idealism") as the reality. This would comprise a profound paradigm shift.

While science and theosophy may share the same grounding, both searching after answers to the same questions, there remains a fundamental difference. While the scientist views his purpose mainly as " advancing the state of science" for our benefit, the theosophist views his role as primarily advancing our awareness of the universal self which is in essence the interconnectedness of all life. In the pursuit of the latter the theosophist may contribute towards the advancement of any field of knowledge; however, while seeking answers to fundamental questions, it is not a professional or moral imperative that he necessarily should find answers -- only that he grow spiritually in the process and do some good along the way.

Where then does this leave religious seekers in light of the scientists' clarion call for help? They have two choices. The first is to expand their own growth in science, not as a separate category but in the monistic sense as a truly integrated component, and to actively offer their wisdom to those responsive within the scientific community. The other choice is to do nothing and share the fate pictured in Robert Jastrow's God and the Astronomers:

For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries. -- quoted in Cosmos, Bios, Theos, p. 2

Of course, this "highest peak" may well not be the ultimate, the real goal, whose "scaling" may require the mutual effort of both theologians and scientists -- whose arrival may have been necessary and may have been deliberately awaited by the theologians. If we choose the first option, science and religion can work in harmony to advance the new worldview in which reality is based both in consciousness (spirit) and matter.

Cosmos, Bios, Theos is an excellent anthology presenting scientists' unedited original responses, which are frequently very eloquent, uniquely stated, revealing, and thoughtful. But the most unique contribution is the realization that while the scientist with faith is able to answer the "why" question regarding his own inner beliefs, he is unable to answer the "why" question when it pertains to the external universe. Those seeking to forge the link between the inner self and the universal self, may indeed offer true and tangible hope.

(From Sunrise magazine, December 1993/January 1994. Copyright © 1994 Theosophical University Press)

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