Summary of the first session

After seeing explanations unfold during my training in science, I got at odds with the Christian religion the way I was taught in school and in church. However, finally I saw how on one hand everything seems to fit into a bigger picture, and on the other hand there seem to be profound intrinsic limitations within science itself. To get the complete picture of the universe including ourselves seems to point beyond science as we know it. This triggered the strong feeling that there must also be a spiritual side to our being. This feeling has sent me off to study more sources between physics, philosophy and religion. This is part of what I would like to see discussed, starting with my scientific view of cosmology. My hope is to dig deeper through our discussions and to read more, now as duty for this class of my choice.

Paul Brockelman is interested in the cosmology from the side of religion. Actually he is just finishing a book on the subject. He wants to take the opportunity of this class to learn more about the physical cosmology, which he has studied, for example, through the books by Paul Davies. His feeling is that religion may not have to say so much about the scientific side, but will bring the meaning into our lives.

We had 16 participants in the first class. They were mainly physics majors from freshman through graduate students and research scientists. However, also biology, philosophy, arts and business administration students have joined us. A majority of the physics students expressed the view that their involvement with the sciences has either left big question marks on the side of religion or even led them to becoming non-believers or atheists. However, in many of them one could still feel the curiosity for the limitation of science and what might be beyond. Remarks were made that one might see religion as a complement to science. The question of consciousness was raised, whether this might present itself with a different form of energy compared to what we are able to measure in physics. The physiology of our brain and its possible connection to consciousness was brought up. Interest in paranormal phenomena was mentioned and what might or might not be consistent with physics. With attendance from philosophy the aspect of God as a sociological conception rather than an explaining principle for our world was brought in. Two of our Chinese students would like to see this also as an opportunity to hear about the picture of religion in the west. In particular, they pointed out that they had no exposure to religion, while being raised under the communist era. This brought in the diversity of religions vs. the more unique approach in the sciences. In summary, the questions and expectations raised by the participants brought already a significant widening of the original scope.

We started our discussion with a Cobe picture of the cosmic background radiation which was connected with the quote from one of the principal investigators as "Looking into the face of God". This quote can be interpreted as finally seeing a connection to God out of the sciences or as the mere possibility to explain the principle "God" within science. Both directions are found among scientists. One can express the feeling that "In the beginning there was light" from the bible can be seen as an analogy of our scientific understanding of the origin of the universe. Namely everything started with energy (radiation = light) as opposed to matter. Alternatively it may just be seen as circumstantial. Hawking was cited as "not needing God to flip the switch in the beginning". At this point the suggestion was brought up that the bible quote may be better understood in a transcendent way, namely as the first light in the morning or as the light of understanding which shines on the framework of our world.

This leaves us with a giant paradox as the TIME article puts it: On one hand science has been able to explain more and more, so that the higher meaning seems pushed back more and more. On the other hand an "overarching pattern" seems to peak through 20th century science that transcends it, namely the making of our world seems so finetuned to produce life and finally intelligent life. This puzzle triggered a long discussion on what the meaning of religion might be. "The God of the cracks" was cited by Paul as a possible understanding and as the big mistake from the religious side. This has made religion so vulnerable to any new scientific breakthrough. Paul rather proposedto see God for what is meaningful in life as opposed to the scientific understanding of the physical world. Finally, he suggested to divide the world into a scientific and a religious realm, with religion giving the sense of salvation.

This triggered a long discussion of the consequences and viewpoints. In particular, such a view may protract the problems in the quite necessary discussion between sciences and religion. There is only one world, why should it be divided? Could the view be intertwined? Then the question came up, what is primary to religion, the scripture or the mystic experience. What is the function of books like the bible? It was suggested that the bible presents a myth about our universe, a coherent myth. Questions of physiological evolution and consciousness were brought up, but of course not discussed in detail during this first session.

I tried to wrap up the class by showing three more slides: 1) The ancient view of the world with man trying to peak out of the universe in order to understand what drives the world is indicative of an attempt which has been made by both, religious leaders and scientists in the past. 2) However, the emerging consciousness can let us see the world as a non-reality of a dream (as in the universe story of Buddha - at Boddhanilkanta in Nepal - where "Buddha dreams the universe" or in the "Neverending Story" where the story of his existence is written into a book while the hero arrives at the site). These latter universe stories seem to be metaphors for world intertwined through our consciousness which connects ourselves into the object we want to study with science. 3) This is shown in a wonderful way in the picture "The Gallery" by M.C. Escher.

Personal response

I must confess that I was delighted by the diversity of participants in our first class! I was astonished to hear that many of our physics students seemed to have some similar experiences in the confrontation between science and religion as I had to go through myself. I am pleased that questions such as the implications of consciousness and the relation between different religions and cultures came up as topics of interest. I am looking forward to see these aspects merge into a great seminar.

The intensity of the discussion and the direct participation of everybody was great! Therefore, I decided to step back. This led to the fact that out of 4 major points, which I had prepared to be covered, only one or two really were addressed: 1) the central question of what the relation between science and religion is today and what space religion might be able to fill (a question which will be around all the time in the seminar) 2) a little bit the closing of a strange loop by consciousness. Reductionism in science and the question, what reality means, didn't come to bear. However, I think we need to and we will discuss these questions later. Since this was only a "sneak preview" any such shortcoming is not tragical. Of course, even the topics which were addressed only got skimmed this first time.

Eberhard Möbius, 9/10/1995