Touching The Limits Of Knowledge

Cosmology and our View of the World


Debates between Science and Religion
Kristyn Lattanzi & Vanessa Ruiz


Summary by Tyler Britton

Problems of Debate between Science and Religion/Spirituality

Kristyn and Vanessa got the conversation started by asking what people considered spirituality, and what the distinctions between religion and spirituality were.

Lauren said that, for her, spirituality is recognizing the interconnectedness of all things. Also, recognizing a higher power of some sort, but still non-religious.

Eberhard discussed how he had taken religion classes when he was younger, but saw institutionalized religion as opposed to math and science; still, he didn’t leave the church. When he started studying physics, he discovered that the more he learned the more questions were raised. In a way, this opened him up to ‘the other side,’ because he recognized that—as a scientist—he’d never be able to explain everything. His wife is a yoga teacher, and he has been able to connect with that. From her experiences he learned to look inwards for spirituality, and not outwards. However, one question still remains entirely unanswered: why something instead of nothing? Now, he sees that scientific inquiry can be compatible with a sense of awe and mystery.

Kalika pointed out how spirituality is a very loose, individualized term. You don’t have to be a part of a group or an organization to be spiritual; it’s something you do on your own. Kristyn said that Vanessa and she actually brought the question up because of this individuality. And Tim said that he believes in the Judeo-Christian god as portrayed in the Bible.

From there we played a game of telephone, in which the original phrase—‘jellyfish swim six circles around’—became something along the lines of ‘ishbit.’ The purpose of the exercise was to show how religious texts may be changed as they are passed on. Is this enough to discourage people?

From there, Vanessa made the argument that religion can be used to pacify the mind, to calm the fears about what we don’t know. Tom said that science can function in very much the same way. It can function like a video game of sorts, constantly occupying your time and attention, so you can’t spend it on other things. It’s almost the opposite to the opiate of the masses, it’s like the caffeine of the masses. Eberhard mentioned how, with science, you can look outside to come up with a test, and somebody else could even test it. But with spirituality, we’re left to our own devices with our inner being. Bill pointed out the reliance that organized religion has on scripture (written or oral tradition), and how it holds great significance for a religious movement. The telephone game, he says, was a critique about how these stories change over time. Kristyn brought up how some people can take scripture, specifically the Koran, as the absolute word of god, which could be dangerous. On the topic of scripture, Tim asked if it’s really fair to assume that religious texts have been skewed. Kristyn answered with a yes, that there is enough historical evidence that most scripture has been changed, and Kate brought up the fact that somebody chose which stories to include. Paul said that if we ask the question ‘what is faith?’ the answer from the Bible wouldn’t be a belief in god; it would be to live a certain way. Science has to do with how things work, while religion has to do with meaning, with how to live; science is blind to ethical value and beauty, to name only a few.

Austin said that it depends on the religion. Some religions, if not most, claim to know the origin of the earth—which are scientific questions—so certainly there must be some overlap between science and religion. Paul took this in a different direction by trying to get at the root of religion. The Greek word ‘mythos’ means story, and religious people ask ‘what’s the story of the universe? What’s really going on? What’s my purpose here?’ Even though science has a story of creation, of how things came to be, we still have to ask what’s it mean? It’s still, to a degree, an interpretation. None of us can live without interpreting what our lives are about; humans will always need a story. But scientists, too, can be fanatics and claim that there’s no other way of knowing. Read the Bible or a novel and you can seek out what it means in your life. The early Christians went out and talked about the risen Jesus and about how he changed their lives. In the East it isn’t scripture, it’s yoga, meditation, a different form of spirituality—you go through the steps. Buddhism goes through seven steps to reach nirvana. But what is nirvana? It’s a way of existing, a way of being, and if you don’t believe it can transform you, do yoga, and if you commit to it, it will change you. - Religion can transform through story. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and his parents had just come back from Egypt, which is a Jewish story: Moses coming from the Promised Land.
Getting back to yoga, Vanessa brought up how it’s supposed to purify the blood and the mind, and if you do yoga you can overcome certain health issues that we normally try to treat with medicine. Here, spirituality actually involves the physical body.
One question Kristyn got from the reading was ‘what is the object of religion: God, mystery, or meaning?’ One aspect of religion is that it gives meaning to things that science explains. She then asked the class whether or not we agreed with these options. Bill went with meaning. Tim pointed out how religions are often concerned with their own continuity, which, on a social level, should be on par with the other three options listed. But Bill was suspicious of giving continuity such importance mainly because all social institutions are concerned with their own continuity; this criterion doesn’t distinguish spiritual or religious institutions from any institution. Tom rebutted that it is the objective of religion.

Eberhard wanted to bring us back to the meaning of the word ‘religion.’ The Latin word ‘religio’ means to connect with something lost, so religion seeks out origins; also, he has trouble with the either/or aspect of the question. Bill continued this thought by pointing out that a large part of religion is, as Paul said, figuring out how to live. You don’t have a sense of where you’re going unless you have a sense of where you came from.

Vanessa proposed the idea that the past doesn’t really exist because there’s no way to get to it, and the same logic can be applied to the future. The focus of religion is the now and being happy in the moment. Bill asked her whether or not she should worry about where her next meal was coming from. She said she can worry but doesn’t get upset about it, which caused Bill to point out how lucky she must be. If she’s never worried then she’s privileged. Lauren said that simply because you don’t know where it’s coming from or when you’ll get it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to be upset about it. But Bill asked what would motivate people to do anything if they were living totally in the present moment. He doesn’t understand why people promote the idea of being totally in the moment. Rocks are totally in the moment. People have memories and wishes, and if we subtract those we wind up with a severely damaged person. We have already experienced the past and we project what we know onto the future. It isn’t a matter of disregarding the past, but of getting the right relationship between the past and the present. Vanessa changed her position slightly, recognizing that we do worry about where out meals come from, but once we’ve satiated our needs there’s no reason to be apprehensive about the past or the future. It’s about changing our perspective and taking time to just be. Or maybe it’s just a matter of eating differently, Bill said, maybe eating thankfully.

Brendan brought up how he spent a week at a Buddhist retreat when he was nineteen and he was amazed at how everyone had a wonderful sense of presence. They’d all wake up at four in the morning and then do yoga, then meditation, and then chant and eat. It was so boring at that age, because everyone was walking and moving around so slowly that they were like rocks to him because he didn’t understand it, but he does now—to some degree, at least. What stood out the most was that nobody really talked—for days, sometimes—and when they ate, someone would ring a bell, and they would stop eating, breathe for a moment, be thankful, and then get back to eating. There was a sense that everything you did was the most important thing you could be doing. The only place you can be happy or truly joyful is in the present moment. Even though you lose yourself as an individual with a strong personality, you’re having a great time even though everyone thinks you’re like a rock, you’re boring. It gives you a more objective position because you’re not projecting your view onto the world around you. Vanessa objected to the idea of being a rock in the sense that the purpose of meditation is not to bask in the moment, but to prepare to give yourself to others.

Peter decided to take us back to rocks, because Bill had used them as an example of what somebody would become if they had no past or future. Peter didn’t think it was true that they have no past or future, and said that they have a high mental value for him. But Paul maintained that he’d still rather be a person than a rock, because rocks don’t seem to know that they exist (as far as we know, interjected Kristyn). Why are we? Why do we wonder? What is being? These are all problems that have never been solved—the is of existence he called it. In a sense, we know because we are, we know that we are, but it’s still a mystery. Initially when humans were religious they were animistic, and they believed that if you shot an arrow from a bow the arrow actually had the power to fly. Consequently, Greek soldiers worshipped their weapons.

The first icons we could find were pregnant women, and this was before science. These people recognized that somehow women have this magical ability to bring existence into being. St Thomas Aquinas said God is “being”, referring to a tradition that starts in exodus where Moses comes to the burning bush, and it says ‘take off your shoes, you’re on holy ground.’ Moses asked who to tell his people he had spoken. The answer was Yahweh. Yahweh means “to be”, I am that I am. Don’t give me a name, I’m not a thing. That’s why so many religions refuse to portray their god or prophet, because what they are worshipping is being itself. When Christians talk about the three persons of the trinity, they don’t literally mean persons—he is empty, transcendent, beyond any kind of definition or picture. Muslims object to depicting Mohammed because he cannot be the picture, he is not finite. We still ask the question ‘what is my role in life?’ It’s a mystery and it’s transforming when you recognize it. We don’t think how strange it is that everything’s the way it is, and we usually don’t pay attention because we’re too busy working on getting ahead. We don’t stop and think ‘how strange it is that this is like this?’ Tom to Paul: “The ‘I am,’ the being, do you equate that with consciousness?” Paul said yes. He can always doubt the existence of the chair, but he cannot doubt the fact that he’s doubting. All religion aims at the transcendence of being. When he asks the ‘what is’ question, we can experience transformation. Tom: ‘where does consciousness come from?’ Paul: ‘it depends on the philosophical position.’ Buddhist philosophers thought that consciousness was something with each individual and that each individual was a storehouse of consciousness; we remember, we anticipate things, we aim our lives toward something meaningful. But are these things worth aiming our lives at? We get distracted from what really matters: how we live. Vanessa said that she thinks that’s just the point. We can never understand where our consciousness goes when we die. That’s what god is, consciousness, people interacting with other people. The way to live is learning to live in harmony with one another.

Kristyn put a new spin on things by asking that, if we assume spirituality is a product of consciousness, then is God a product of consciousness? Tom then asked where consciousness comes from: does it come from our biological selves? Why do we assume a rock isn’t conscious? Why do we make that judgment? Paul brought up phenomenology here, explaining it as each person experiencing themselves out in the world. Tom returned to meditation, saying that in a deep meditation we don’t think of our bodies as such; you’re not aware of what your brain is doing—that’s the last thing you’d be aware of. Even if consciousness does come from the brain, Bill explained, it doesn’t mean that the brain is the object of consciousness, but perhaps the vehicle of consciousness. On phenomenology, Tom said that it means we experience it. So how could we possibly judge whether or not a rock has consciousness? We can only know what we experience. Paul mentioned how animals have awareness, but we, people, have an awareness of our own awareness. But even if we assume consciousness comes from the brain, our experiences are not equivalent to a biological description of what’s going on in our physical bodies.

Bill wanted to get back to the rock situation: it’s clear that rocks aren’t conscious, and if you’re worried about that, to take seriously the question is to lose contact with any sense of what consciousness means. Humans and animals show that they can take in information and act on it according to their desires, and it’s insincere to take that question seriously. Tom said that one way to respond is we’re faced with the question of what is consciousness. You could conclude that consciousness doesn’t exist in any physical thing. Bill said that responding to the environment is at least a necessary condition, but rocks do so only in a calculatable way. Wind and water can erode rock, and in that sense it responds, but a rock shows no signs of taking in information and acting on it.

Somebody brought up how people have been able to recount what was happening around them while they were in a coma even though everyone around them, including doctors, thought that they were entirely unconscious. We never really sorted this issue out: it was left open whether or not it is safe to apply our version of consciousness onto all other things, including rocks. Kristyn brought up dreams: you can recount your dreams in your waking life even though we don’t react to our dreams. Bill said that dreaming is a dependent phenomenon; it’s dependent on having a consciousness in the first place.

Kristyn tried to get things back onto planned material by posing what she saw as the main question: with the way science has shaped our society, and with religion more a part of the sociological realm, do you think that science will ever develop a comfortable place among the religious? Brendan replied that there’s a distinction between their uses. Science is useful to make stuff, but as far as how we actually live and where we get meaning, that’s the realm of religion and spirituality. If you take your experience of the present with a sense of mystery, science is objective and cold; spirituality is a unique, individual thing that teaches me about life, in a way that science can’t. Science can explain things but it doesn’t really give them a sense of meaning. Peter rejected this notion: science is a human construct, he argued; it isn’t detached from society but a part of it.

Tim argued that Christians gave birth to modern science because they expected to find order in everything because of their belief in a rational creator. Naturalistic evolution is self-refuting he says, because it doesn’t make sense to trust the conclusions of a brain that evolved purely to survive and reproduce.

Eberhard brought up how science is a human enterprise. From the middle ages to the Renaissance, science was a driving force. Our description of the universe changes with our scientific enterprise. The essence of science is that you toss out a model if it doesn’t hold up to the tests. We cannot test our experience the way we do in science, so it creates a difficulty between these two realms. Spirituality involves seeing things in a different way, it involves revelation, and these experiences cannot be tested scientifically. Paul elaborated on this saying that they deal with different conceptions of truth. Science deals with models and concepts while religion deals with existing. Science helps us understand but it doesn’t help us with value questions. Bill refuted the notion that the ideals listed by Tim were specifically Christian. The Greeks expected to find order, ‘cosmos’ means order. And Kristyn said that all religions sought to explain the unexplainable, so in that sense every religion could be credited with leading to the eventual development of science. Galileo said the world is a book and the language is mathematics. It was a big move to see that mathematics was the way of explaining things around us. From here we discussed religion’s impact on scientific progress. At times religion has suppressed science, but at the same time, any authoritarian entity that has an interest in suppressing science will do so. In a sense, the discussion ended at ethics. We tried distinguishing the good and the bad that religion (or lack of religion) has caused. Of course, we didn’t reach any conclusions.

The prevailing theme of the discussion seemed to be the distinction between science and spirituality: science explains things, while spirituality focuses on how to live.

The session itself ended with a short meditation, introduced by Vanessa. She led us in by asking us to focus on our breathing. We came here with different views, but in these last few moments we were able to share the same silence and the same air.