Thursday, August 14, 2003

In Awe of Creation

As one who ponders the laws, forms, and vitality of creation, I can be filled with great awe at the natural world. Unfortunately, this awe cannot easily find expression in the current scientific climate given our conventions of detachment. Schrodinger once declared the deficiency of the scientific picture with regard to that which "is really near to our heart":

"I'm very astonished that the scientific picture of the real world is very deficient. It gives a lot of factual information, puts all our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us. It cannot tell a word about red and blue, bitter and sweet, physical pain and physical delight, knows nothing of beautiful and ugly, good or bad, God and eternity. Science sometimes pretends to answer questions in these domains, but the answers are very often so silly that we are not inclined to take them seriously."

Science, the abstract entity, the ever expanding open source library of observation and theory, may provide "a lot of factual information." But the inspiration for the individual contributors to that library can be deeply spiritual, rooted in the awe of creation, the handiwork of a magnificent Creator. Isaac Newton wrote more words about theology than science. One of his most frequently quoted statements is: "This most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being."

M.I.T. professor Alan Lightman wrote a book called Origins: the Lives and Worlds of Modern Cosmologists, where he states:

"References to God or divine purpose continued in the scientific literature until the middle to late 1800s. It seems likely that the studied lack of religious references after this time resulted more from a change in social and professional convention among scientists rather than from any change in underlying thought. Indeed, contrary to popular myth, scientists appear to have the same range of attitudes about religious matters as does the general public."

I think many early modern scientists saw their investigations as a fleshing out of the awe and wonder that they already believed the Christian God had in store for them. Although perhaps no major religion has embraced science, individual scientists certainly have, declaring in the words of Carl Sagan, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant. God must be even greater than we dreamed."

As scientific convention has distanced itself from the spiritual, a vacuum has emerged in which Sagan believed a new religion would emerge: "A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by conventional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge."

This may yet be the case. But for some, the awe they experience brings them back to their faith. It is not a grafting of the spiritual onto the rational, but a return to the spirit through a door unsuspected. The world of the seen hints at the world of the unseen, as if through a murky window. But as the window clears, we may yet encounter the unseen face to face. And without fear.

The childlike awe at the natural world is a like a signpost, telling us we're heading in the right direction. It has been said that scientists will one day crest the mountain of human knowledge only to find a group of theologians at the top wondering what took them so long to get there. If the theologians are there, I'd like to meet them. I think it's more likely that both are cresting the same mountain, guided by desire. And it may turn out to be much more than a mountain.

I'm more familiar with the Christian scientists out there, but I am sure one can find expressions of this awe in a variety of faiths. I think that some of the early workers in quantum mechanics were of a Hindu spirituality and this doubtless entered some of their writings.

My particular experience of the awe originally found expression in the words of Paul Davies, a mathematical physicist whose first book I read was Superforce when I was a sophomore in high school:

"I was drawn to the idea of God as a sort of 'timeless ground of being' on which the cosmic order is built. Since science proceeds from the assumption that nature unfailingly obeys rational mathematical laws, these laws must be rooted in something."

The quote is deliciously open-ended. The open source search for the "root of being" continues. As Francis Bacon (1561-1626), popularizer of the scientific method said, in what has been called his "Two Books" manifesto,

"Let no one think or maintain that a person can search too far or be too well studied in either the book of God's word or the book of God's works."

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