Religion and Science


As I mentioned in a previous post, Norbert Samuelson has been arguing about the need to integrate Jewish philosophy and science. In his view, the split between the humanities and natural sciences has run its course. I have heard Jack Caputo pronounce that the natural sciences have outstripped the humanities in the one special domain it once thought it could claim as its very own, namely the imagination. In this view, nothing in continental philosophy can come close to competing with the mind-bending work of contemporary science.

I spent a good part of winter break reading up on popular science. I figured it was about time. I read Searle and David Chalmers on the philosophy of consciousness. I read Michael Gazzaniga and Antonio Demasio on neuroscience, Steven Pinker on cognitive psychology, and Brian Greene on special and general relativity, quantum, string theory, and multiple universes. I think I’ve got as much as I can absorb for right now in terms of a general orientation.

If Norbert and Jack are right, which I think they are, the most practical upshot of a foray into science consists in a simultaneous change in concepts and sensibility. The new science allows us to stop thinking mechanistically and deterministically, and to think past the metaphysical notion of substance and attribute. Going back a hundred years already, the new sciences have encouraged and will continue to encourage us to devise new aesthetic strategies, to cultivate a taste for picture-worlds, soundscapes, and concepts that approximate the uncanny sense of the world revealed to us in modern and contemporary physics or neuroscience, as in abstract art and atonal music. We might start to develop images, sounds, and theoretical vocabularies with which to evoke worlds, bodies, and beliefs that trade upon energy, mass, light, speed, acceleration, warp, ripples, tears, waves, and strings.

In religious life, I can see how this might work in terms of a thought experiment. Standing in synagogue, I am struck by the stability and quiet hum of the liturgical space. I contrast this stable little micro world with the space and time outside, a world in which light and other fast particles twist and warp at ferocious speeds around massive bodies. I transfer to inside the synagogue this image of warp and twist permeating physical and mental life. I might imagine all this as very big or very small. I do this on the basis of what I guess we all are now supposed to know or what we are supposed to pretend to know about the constitution of the physical universe. An advanced form of just-so thinking

Or try with a photograph to align what we see with what we know. Slightly tilting the camera allows you to create images in which the appearance of the scene or figure is struck off balance. Tilting the camera creates diagonal lines. The more volatized image comes evokes in a pictorial image the disorienting mental effects of contemporary science on what we “know” about the physical universe, but cannot ordinarily “see” outside the laboratory.

This, by the way, is a already an old trick. Consider the dynamic and volatizing compositional form of Baroque painting, which works across a diagonal axis. This stands opposed to the more clearly articulated composition across a horizontal axis in Renaissance painting. About this, Heinrich Wolfflin wrote almost a century ago. Perhaps he too, the eminent German art historian and teacher of Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin, was already working under the influence of the new physics?

What then does this say about the way we assimilate what we know about the world into how we imagine and then perceive it? The world as it appears to us day in and day out is a Newtonian universe. We are too slow to perceive the world as Einstein conceived it. And too complex and composite to see the world as it is known in quantum mechanics. So you have to push the imagination. What’s it like to be a molecule, or an electron, or a neutrino speeding faster than the speed of light, attuned to the music of a stringy multiverse?

But when all is said and done, scientists are almost never going to tell us what that might “feel” like as a quale. Scientists are usually not the best interpreters of their findings. They are not adept at sharing their enthusiasm with others, i.e. non-scientists. They lack the art. Look at all the kitsch in popular science. Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking is unwatchable if you are older than 8. Consider the treacly attempts to find forms of inspiration that might act as secular surrogates for religion. Popular science is rife with bad musical or astral metaphors and sophomoric discussions inspired by the Matrix, and so on and so on. Pinker thinks that bullshiting is something we can all do after hours. He doesn’t realize it’s full time business.

A more serious problem is the clearly defined prejudice for simplicity and harmony drives a lot of scientific research. The search for unified theory has much to do with resolving contradictions in scale between the very large (in general relativity) and the very small (in quantum); or explaining why there should be these many fundamental particles and these many fundamental forces. That everything should fit together coherently is described by Greene as “faith.”  But what if the world turns out to be asymmetrical or atonal after all?

So I’m not giving up on art and interpretation anytime soon. I spent a recent afternoon watching Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007), a documentary-meditation on his trip to the South Pole. In terms of scale, Herzog moves seamlessly up and down “the chain of being” between the physical, geological, biological, zoological, anthropological, and metaphysical. His films suggest that scientists might have much to learn about the art of scientific expression. About Herzog, I’ll write more later.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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