Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Problems of Debates between Science and Religion
Lead: Nancy Littlefield


Summary by Irina Trubetskova:


Problems of Debates between Science and Religion

Although every session of the seminar is a unique event in terms of the topic, the flow of the discussion, and the originality that every leader brings in, this seminar was especially interesting due to participation of the two remarkable guests: Paul Brockelman, a Distinguished University Professor of Religious Studies, and Prof. John E. Carroll, an Environmental and Natural Resources expert. Paul Brockelman, together with Dr. Eberhard Möbius, started the Cosmology seminar at the UNH in 1995. John Carroll, using all possible means, is actively promoting the ideas, principles, and practices of Sustainable Agriculture and Land Ethics.

Nancy Littlefield began the seminar indicating that both science and religion want to be in the control of comprehensive knowledge about our world, i.e. both pretend to be a theory of everything possible. Religion could be seen as an antagonistic or a creative force. The church wants to have power, not the quest of spirituality. According to Nancy’s opinion, true spirituality could not be found in religion. Both religion and science want to know “How we are here?” and “Where we are going?” She refers to the book Physics and our View of the World (ed. Jan Hilgevoord), which considers questions like “Who is observer in the Universe?” and discusses weak and strong principles. Nancy makes a note that the more knowledge we have, the less questions remain. Möbius replies that trying to fill the gaps of the unknown is difficult, and that spirituality is just another argument in scientific theory. Nancy continues pointing out that although both religion and science are trying to pursue the comprehensive truth about the world, religion requires believing, but science cannot accept this (it requires evidence and proof).

Brockelman comments that human life is bigger than we know it. From the point of view of a common person, it is not possible to live without questioning such things as “How can I live my life forward?”, “Where did we come from?”, and “Where are we going?” These are not cognitive questions. Human beings are the creatures that cannot live without faith and need to move toward a meaningful goal. To fill a gap with religion, science has to recognize human mind and the limits and boundaries of knowledge. For its part, religion should recognize that there are depths in life (not only beliefs) that are explored by science. This means that science and religion are just at different ends of the process of exploring the world.

Carroll brought up the point that science is rather reductiolistic. We assigned too much “objectivity” to science. It became a religion to somebody, who believed then that science can explain everything. Tom Davis adds that there is more to embrace for a scientist than just truth (or to be right), and to value other approaches. Willem de Vries notes that interesting thing about science is its power. A widely accepted opinion is that if it is not proven scientifically, it is not true. That is why science is binded; it restricts you, scientists, de Vries argues, to taking broader everything.

Part of it, Möbius entered into discussion, is also a success of science. The simple way of doing science is to separate subject from object. But in case of quantum mechanics, you should be aware that particles are not just particles, but also the waves that are going everywhere. You can read between lines in Niels Bohr, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein writings that there is more unknown and there are boundaries of the knowledge we are trying to pursue. But science always pushes the boundaries to go beyond the limits, which are defined by our present level of knowledge. What is beyond? - Brockelman questioned. And replies: this is the same reality.

Carroll tells that in his teaching he always focuses on the definitions of ecology and religion. Ecology is the study of the relationships and interactions between living organisms and their environment (from Greek oikos –house, habitation, Microsoft Encarta Library). According to Wikipedia Encyclopedia, the word religion probably derives from the Latin word ligare, meaning "to join", "to link" or to bind. The prefix re- may mean means “back” or “again”, so religion could be literally translated as “binding back”, or as re-linking or re-joining, or as “binding strongly”. Thus, Carroll concludes, both religion and ecology are very close in terms of their context of interconnectedness, interrelatedness, i.e. they come together in a unity.

De Vries says that he had a student whose motivation in science was to better understand the creation of God. Möbius states that science and religion represent two different aspects of searching for reality, which he sees as complementary. You can do science, but you can ask religion about reality, because they are not mutually exclusive. De Vries adds that science and religion ask the same questions: What the world is all about? How does it work? But they both interpret these in different ways. Möbius notes that many scientists do science, and it has a spiritual component. Davis replies that to be deeply spiritual has nothing to do with knowledge; it means to make a relationship.

Justin Bourque wonders: does it make sense to continue if, for example, an observer from outside sees that what you explore is not real? Brockelman replies that the question of meaning is not an epistemological question. It is not the question of knowledge, but it is something transcendental. We are speaking about two parallel searches. There is existence, there is reality. Science is looking for understanding. Religion is looking for the ways of living: live your life focused on God, i.e. on the reality. Davis starts, “You don’t really need the God for any purpose,” and Brockelman finishes with “But for living”. Brockelman continues that religion is the awareness of the mystery to be. It is mysterious and we never get there. Life provides the experience of mysterious being. You cannot conceptualize it. Religion is a spiritual pass. Religion is pragmatism. Religion is about reality.

De Vries adds that religion is about ideal. We ought to be, religion claims. I see religion in terms of values: what is right and what is good. I think you (Paul) emphasize reality in religion too much. Brockelman responds that when we emphasize the sense of wonder, we still have a good living. Möbius says that he senses a little confusion of the reality we can touch, and which is beyond. In eastern religion, the latter is like going inside, i.e. meditating. This is also the way of knowledge. Carroll says that early Christianity was more immanent, and everything was considered to be sacred. Davis tells that one of the questions in Science some years ago was “Do you believe in God, staying outside beyond our reality?” Yes, answered the public, but scientists answered no. Scientists at the level of natural academic science would deny any external God, who can interfere in any project. Religion relies on emotion and passion, but science uses logic and reason.

Brockelman says that “How can I live through suffering and pain?” is one of the key questions asked in spiritual dimension. These issues are inseparable of living. How should we live? Möbius adds that Buddhism teaches how to deal with suffering. Brockelman replies that Christianity also deals with that. How can we live if we know we should bare our cross, and we should die? Can we fall in love then? Buddhism gives the existential practice through yoga. Both Buddhism and Christianity acknowledge the same things mythologically: how to escape the wheel that is the chain of rebirths, and how do we deal with suffering? Davis says that the idea of rebirths is something ontological. De Vries replies that we are not merely bodies, but there is something to rebirth. There is an implicit claim, Davis comments. Reincarnation assumes that entities that exist separately from the material world penetrate the physical world during rebirths. The very notion of the soul in the tales is that the body and the soul interact. Having a notion that there are souls, reincarnation, rebirths, it is logical to assume that they might represent unknown aspects of the reality we are not familiar with so far.

Möbius says that, indeed, we did not deal with it scientifically: we did not make this step yet (we use only three percent of our brain capacity). Therefore, we should not state at this point that these phenomena are outside nature. De Vries asks what persists after death: will it be you? Brockelman responds that the soul-talk is highly mythological and symbolic, so no arguments count. There could not be reasoning there. De Vries replies that it is the wrong game to play. Persons are not objects and may not be treated as objects; it is a wrong move. Möbius argues that if you say (about souls), “I mean it literary”, then it becomes a hypothesis to test. If you find evidence in support of the hypothesis, then it is true. Carroll adds that this is also a fundamental question of insanity. Ecology teaches as the first principle that everything is related to everything. In case of insanity, the person becomes detached of the community of subjects. Davis questions, “What is the real nature of subjects of experience?” “Persons,” Brockelman replies. Davis states that he can see himself both as an object of his own experience and at the same time as the subject. De Vries says that the stories are meaningful, and they have morality. Religion and science give us the same message, but in different forms. Brockelman continues that science is trying to understand, but religion is just living life. Carroll questions, “What were we before we became humans? What will we be thereafter?” The answer is star dust and particles.

With this message, we had to leave the seminar because we realized that the time had flown by. However, everybody left with a good feeling as the seminar was very productive and enlightening.

The predictions of many remarkable thinkers from former and present times about inevitable integration of ancient knowledge that religions possess (through exploration of the reality inwards) with scientific knowledge about reality (obtained in exploration directed outwards) are becoming true. Back in 1949, Albert Einstein recognized that
“You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe. But the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work, in so far as he succeeds in keeping himself from the shackles of selfish desire. It is beyond question closely akin to that which has possessed the religious geniuses of all ages”.
Einstein acknowledged the deepness, profundity, and wisdom of ancient religions: “When I read the Bhagavad-Gita I ask myself how God created the universe. Everything else appears to be superfluous”.

It is a characteristic feature of our time that more and more serious scientists like Carl Sagan, for example, openly state that there could not be a “pure”, emasculated science without spiritual component: “A religion 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 traditional faiths. Sooner or later, such a religion will emerge”. In this connection it is interesting to note that the fastest growing religion in the world is deism (700% growth during 1990-2000, according to ARIS). Deism is a belief “in the existence of a God or supreme being but denies revealed religion, basing his belief on the light of nature and reason” ( The following words of Einstein also give, in fact, a Deistic interpretation of God: “My religion consists of a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” I would like to conclude with the quote from Albert Einstein that excellently reflects the ongoing process of approaching science and religion: “I do not think that it is necessarily the case that science and religion are natural opposites. In fact, I think that there is a very close connection between the two. Further, I think that science without religion is lame and, conversely, that religion without science is blind. Both are important and should work hand-in-hand. It seems to me that whoever doesn't wonder about the truth in religion and in science might as well be dead.”