Rational Scientific Theories from Theism

Freeing the Scientific Imagination from Fundamentalist Scientism

Bernard Haisch, Redwood CA 94065, USA

From Network, the newsletter of The Scientific and Medical Network, No 76 (August 2001) pp13-15
Original URL http://www.scimednet.org/Articles/SPShaisch.htm

Modern science, especially in the United States, is finding itself doing intellectual battle with religious fundamentalism, most notably in the arena of evolution versus creationism. As a professional scientist I understand the necessity of combating the creationist hodge podge of unsupportable alternatives to the evidence for evolution. However modern mainstream science has itself become dangerously dogmatic and dismissive of evidence that does not fit its own prejudices.

In its most extreme form, which unfortunately is so widespread that it may represent the majority view of modern scientists, the dogmatism of today's reductionist mentality is such as to preclude any meaningful engagement with a spiritual worldview because all substantive elements of such a worldview are regarded as pure fantasy. The modern reductionist might be comfortable in a limited scientific-spiritual dialogue provided that spiritual beliefs are diluted to moral and ethical codes of conduct, and religion practices interpreted as merely social and cultural events, as if there were no ontological difference between a Saturday night rave and a Sunday morning church service insofar as their roles as rituals of a community.

Incisive recent books by biologist Kenneth Miller and by theologian John Haught make a compelling case that Darwin and God are quite compatible. To put my cards on the table, as both an astrophysicist and a Christian I have no problem with evolution, a 15 billion year old Universe, a Big Bang and a Creator. What I do consider to be a major problem is fundamentalism on the scientific side of the fence: call it fundamentalist scientism.

It is acceptable, in fact even fashionable, to publish scientific papers today on theories of entire universes, invisible to us, that may be adjacent to our Universe in higher dimensions. Such ideas go by the name of string-theory, brane-theory and M-theory and are considered among the most exciting and prestigious forefront areas of modern physics. Even universes right on top of our own, interpenetrating the space right under our noses, are considered plausible, provided you express this with impressive mathematics in terms of opposite chirality particles and interactions, for example. I myself have postdocs working for me that are experts in these areas.

Physical Dimensions and Transcendent Realities

However if a religious person talks about transcendent spiritual realities, that is scoffed at. For some reason the 11 or 26-dimensional string worlds - take your pick - of the physicist are OK but the supernatural realms of the mystic are judged to be mere superstition. The word 'supernatural' has been pretty successfully tarred and tainted as no longer respectable by the materialist reductionist guardians of the 'natural' (meaning the particles and fields of modern physics). The interesting thing is that the string and brane universes remain theoretical concepts, whereas mystics throughout the ages actually report coherent and consistent observations of transcendent, i.e. supernatural, realities. As an astrophysicist I am partial to observations.

The word 'mystic' also raises a bright red flag in front of the scientific reductionist. However one of my favorite mystics is none other than Sir Arthur Eddington, widely regarded as the greatest astrophysicist in the first half of the twentieth century. It was his observations of the Sun that verified Einstein's general theory of relativity in 1919 (and which made Einstein famous overnight). When the New York Times said that only 12 men (that is, alas, how they put it in 1919) in the world understood Einstein's new theory, Eddingon was near the top of the list. He wrote groundbreaking scientific treatises like 'The Mathematical Theory of Relativity' which explained relativity to the lesser geniuses of the time (and even half a century later to decidedly non-genius graduate students, such as myself) and 'The Internal Constitution of the Stars'... but he also went public with 'Science and the Unseen World' in which he discussed his spiritual convictions and his belief in the existence of realms beyond the physical.

How to define this fundamentalist scientism that has quenched a large fraction of the scientific imagination? It is a dogma that the only possible reality is that explored or conjured up by physics and limited to matter and energy. It is the belief presented as fact that science has proven that God and any possible subordinate immaterial intelligences or hierarchies are merely leftover antiquated myth as any sensible person should know without question by now. It is the conviction that our own consciousness cannot be anything grander than a bit of brain chemistry, a mere epiphenomenon albeit one that curiously has been carried a bit further than the exigensies of evolution might have been expected to do. Never mind the direct evidence of our own awareness that something else and more profound is really going on that even the strident debunker directly experiences (and somehow argues himself out of... and I do mean 'himself' since strident debunking appears to be very testosterone related).

This dogma of fundamentalist scientism is dangerous because it leads inevitably to the conclusion that there cannot be any purpose behind the existence of the universe or its tenants. In this reductionist materialist point of view, the life of any human being must ultimately be devoid of any meaning greater than perhaps a transient psychological satisfaction in a here-and-now job well done, be it sending the kids through college or firing up the kind of Sunday barbecue that makes friends and family salivate. Indeed, there is no lack of vocal scientific luminaries who, exuding a kind of stoic pride, draw precisely this conclusion. One prominent Nobel Laureate makes no bones about it, stating that the more we learn of the Universe the more it is obvious that it is pointless. Such a decidedly glum assessment of our present position and future prospects is hardly inspirational. Muslim philosopher Seyyed Hossein Nasr has observed that as values lose their grounding not only does the danger to the natural world increase, so does the probability of human atrocities. The end result of a philosophy espousing a pointless Universe can only be ugliness and destruction, for no matter in what mantle of stoic nobility one attempts to cloak it, it is no fountain of hope but rather a poison brew of pessimism. Or to couch it in the language of its nihilist proponents, there is no conceivable end result but the grim maximization of entropy. This position cannot - via any tinkering or contortion - be made life enhancing.

Spiritual World-Views

Let us for the moment use the term 'spiritual worldview' as a shorthand, important details to be filled in at this conference, for the supposition that reality and our own nature, our conscious being, involves both tangible, physical, matter and an immaterial 'something,' this 'something' being intimately, indeed essentially, involved in the existence of consciousness and life and ultimately being traceable to a divine origin and purpose. The opposition of modern, mainstream science to such a spiritual worldview is immediate and forceful, for reasons both rational and irrational, for this feud between science and religion has deep roots that go beyond intellectual repression in centuries past. Religion has been responsible, ironically and unconscionably, for vast swaths of death, destruction and terror spanning the globe and most of recorded history... and it is by no means over with today. It is a fair argument that the life cycle of religion as an institution of power, propaganda and paternalism has gone far enough beyond its biblically allotted years. But a spirituality rooted in the perennial philosophy - as summarised by Aldous Huxley, say - cannot be the evil influence that the majority of scientists seem to see, triggering their red-flag-in-front-of-the-bull response, for the simple reason that the truths therein must also be laws, as fundamental as gravity or electromagnetism but of a different order. It is up to us to find those laws amid the culturally-fertilized religious overgrowth.

The most vehement proponents of materialist reductionism, such as biologists Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins point with almost ghoulish glee to the fear, pain and terror that are part of the process of evolution, thereby making an emotional but cogent argument for atheism and aspirituality. How could a benevolent God ever countenance the existence - and for millions of years at that - of monstrous eating machines such as Tyranosaurus Rex and his associates who must have spent their days chewing up everything in sight foolish enough to move underfoot, a decidedly unbenevolent situation for the poor prey? If human beings really are God's children, why has it taken billions of years of all too often nightmarish, horrific natural selection to bring us into existence? Is a process like this really necessary that relies on hideously slow selection for traits that make a creature a bit less likely to be caught and devoured in the predatory jungle? What kind of creation is this, they ask? It is a fair question, but one for which a rational answer can be proposed that is quite the opposite of the one they advance as the only plausible one, namely their view that evolution proves beyond a doubt that only pitiless, indifferent laws are at work in the Universe, nothing else. It is my hope that precisely this argument against the existence of a benevolent Creator can be addressed at this conference.

When mystics say, as they have to the endless annoyance of the reductionist, that the Universe is the body of God, the reaction of normal folks is liable to range from 'that's poetic' to 'that's crazy' with quite a few 'sounds cool, but I sure don't get it' in between. Could this in any conceivable way be more than just poetic metaphor? The perennial philosophy maintains that there is a truth here, one that is capable of being elucidated - admittedly not to full human comprehension - but at least to a first-order level of understanding.

A Creator who ultimately seeks benevolence in spite of evidence that sometimes contradicts that from our limited historical earthly perspective. Human beings as immortal spiritual forms evolving through temporary bodies. The existence of realms of reality beyond the presently known particles and forces of modern physics. These seem to me to be the three minimum foundations for a spiritual worldview. Without at least these three pillars one may have a system of morals and ethics or a philosophy of life, but not a spiritual worldview having any substantive content. With each of these pillars, what starts as a system of morals and ethics moves progressively towards a substantively new vision of spirituality in Nature, marrying the values of objective scientific discovery with the subjective experience of a far larger reality than that yet grasped by science.

All three of these pillars are at odds with the tenets of fundamentalist scientism. However none of them are genuinely at odds with either the corpus of scientific knowledge or the scientific science limits its investigations to the physical world. Arguments against these three fundamental spiritual tenets are based on the dogmatic assumptions of fundamentalist scientism, not on any objective scientific evidence.

It would be a failure for this dialogue between science and spirit to lead to essentially no more than an agreement to politely disagree. I believe that engaging the scientific and spiritual imagination means seeking and acquiring new knowledge. Not surprisingly this can take place on the usual two fronts: theory and observation/experimentation. In my 12 years of editing the Journal of Scientific Exploration I have been exposed to a great deal of investigation of anomalies, spanning the spectrum from absurd to awesome. Within the pages of that journal alone there is enough substantive data to initiate productive research in areas that can engage both the open-minded scientist and the spiritually-interested empiricist. Naturally, there are many other sources of information - including the mystical - but I cite the one with which I am most familiar.

Remote Viewing Research

Let me give one example. For 24 years the U. S. government sponsored a remote viewing program at a modest but not insignificant funding level of approximately $1 million per year, first at SRI and then at SAIC. Though not involved in it myself, I am well acquainted with the leading figures in this program. In 1996 I ran five articles commenting on this program in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. This was triggered by the declassification and release of a 270 page SRI report and a retrospective review of the program by the American Institutes of Research for the CIA. (Approximately 80,000 pages of program material remain classified, I am told.) The CIA-sponsored review came to mixed conclusions regarding the underlying reality of human psychic abilities. Prof. Jessica Utts, a well-known statistician at the University of California, Davis, author of the textbook 'Seeing Through Statistics' and Fellow (not just member, which anyone can become by virtue of check or credit card) of the American Association for the Advancement of Science concluded: 'Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic function has been well established.... It is recommended that future experiments focus on understanding how this phenomenon works, and on how to make it as useful as possible.'

Prof. Ray Hyman, a well-known skeptic, disagreed with this. However Edwin May, the director of the program from 1986 to 1996 has stated that neither Utts nor Hyman were actually privy to the best data in the first place. That was as much as he could state in public owing to classification issues. The SRI-SAIC program is just the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous other research articles in the Journal, as well as elsewhere. There are experiments that suggest that acquisition of information using this ability has a baffling atemporal character. This makes me skeptical that any interaction along the lines of electromagnetism, gravitation, the strong or weak interactions will be capable of explaining these observations. I think that the understanding of this will require both a scientific and a spiritual way of viewing reality, and therein lies a promising program for future collaboration.

In terms of theory, modern physics and astrophysics are overflowing today with concepts of things that are not evident to the senses - ranging from particles of dark matter to alternate universes - and laws that are the opposite of mechanistic - non-locality and superposition of states in quantum physics for example. The possible similarity or connection between certain mysteries of science and certain spiritual mysteries is admittedly oversimplified in the flood of New Age-oriented books washing over the western world, but I suggest that there is a dearth and thus an opportunity at higher levels. Two examples would be the work of Haught in the arena of evolution theory (entirely consistent with Darwinian natural selection), and the attempts to formulate a theological application of the field concept by Pannenberg and by Curtis.

Matter and Light

Together with a number of postdocs and colleagues elsewhere, I am currently involved in a theoretical physics project at the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics concerning a possible connection between the zero-point field of the quantum vacuum and the inertia of matter. At the risk of overstating the case, but in the interest of keeping this brief, I will summarise its possible relevance by saying that it may be the first ever ’bottom up’ insight on the ’creation of matter involving light’ concept that one finds in the ’top down’ cosmogonies of many esoteric traditions. The theoretical physics project is substantive, with the research published in mainstream physics journals and having been supported by a multiyear NASA research grant. The possible metaphysical connections I am suggesting are naturally far more speculative (and of course do not carry any NASA imprimatur). Science consists of a spirit of inquiry and methods to investigate and analyse. It is a highly successful enterprise for investigation of the physical world. But to claim that investigation of the physical world rules out anything spiritual is fundamentalist scientism that is both irrational and dogmatic. Rejection of evidence that cannot yet be measured with instruments in a laboratory is contrary to the scientific spirit of inquiry. It is time to move beyond dogmatic fundamentalism in both religion and in science.

Presented at the Future Visions Conference, New York, September 2000.

Dr. Bernard Haisch, California Institute for Physics & Astrophysics, 366 Cambridge Ave., Palo Alto, CA 94306, email: haisch@calphysics.org and web www calphysics.org

Dr. Bernhard Haisch is a high-energy astrophysicist, author or co-author of over 100 scientific papers and principal investigator on a dozen former NASA research projects. He is the director of the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics (CIPA) in Palo Alto and serves as a Scientific Editor of the Astrophysical Journal Past positions include Staff Scientist at the Lockheed-Martin Solar and Astrophysics Laboratory; Deputy Director, Center for EUV Astrophysics at the University of California, Berkeley; Visiting Fellow, Max-Planck-Institut fuer extraterrestrische Physik in Garching, Germany; Visiting Scientist, University of Utrecht, the Netherlands; and Postdoctoral Fellow, Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, University of Colorado, Boulder. He obtained his doctorate in astronomy frorn the University of Wisconsin, Madison and his BS in astrophysics from Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a mernber of the International Astronomical Union, American Astronomical Society, European Astronomical Society, fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, and Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He has had an interest in the connection between the scientific and the spiritual perspectives from the time he was a student for the priesthood and also as former Editor of the Journal of Scientific Exploration.

www.TheisticScience.org Author: Ian J. Thompson, Email: IanT at TheisticScience.org