Science and Religion

Science combines empirical observation and theorizing to understand what the universe consists of and how it works; providing an objective and rational foundation, based on what can be discovered by the human intellect, for personal belief systems. Science cannot answer certain questions, but as curious human beings we inevitably let our minds wander beyond what can be discovered with our intellects. Religion, and in a broader sense philosophy, address “existential” questions of ultimate meaning and moral value, such as why we exist and how we should live our lives, transcending the knowledge that can be attained via the scientific method. There appears to be a moving boundary between the realms of science and religion. This boundary gets pushed further as we deepen our understanding of the universe, but it will probably never disappear. Contrary to the widespread opinion that there is an inherent conflict between science and religion, I think that they can “dovetail” with each other if we use the findings of science as the foundation from which to attempt to extrapolate into possible answers for the existential questions. In this article, I will summarize first some of the key information and insights that may be gained from modern science and then my own current personal belief system.

According to the hypothesis that is best supported (but not rigorously proven) by observations, our physical universe appears to have emerged from nothingness via the Big Bang (at a time when there was no time, and in a place where there was no space!) and then evolved subject to the laws of physics. However, even if, through the application of the scientific method, we were somehow eventually able to learn all that can be known about our universe from the moment of the Big Bang onwards, we would still be left with many unanswered existential questions. For example, why does our universe exist at all, instead of the continuation of the nothingness prevalent before the Big Bang? It is possible to reply by invoking quantum fluctuations, but such an answer only pushes the boundaries of the mystery a step further since one can then wonder why the physical laws are structured such as to allow quantum fluctuations. Why do the physical laws and fundamental constants of our universe favor increasing complexity; as manifested by the structuring of matter into galaxies, solar systems, and planets; and at least on Planet Earth also the emergence of life and consciousness? Does what we perceive as quantum mechanical indeterminacy lead to free will and emergent creativity, and perhaps even enable the action of a transcendent Creative Force (Deity) in the framework of a rigorously scientific description of our universe? Obviously, such “why” questions are not in the realm of science. Any answers cannot either be supported or refuted by empirical observations, and hence they are in the realm of religion. Furthermore, could our universe be just a component (or layer) of a more complex reality? In particular, do other universes exist? If they do, how and why might they have come into being? Might any of them be connected to our universe via something like a “spacetime warp”? Might any of them be detectable by us? How might their physical laws, fundamental constants, and complexities compare with ours?

Calculations taking into account the dimensions and contents of our universe and the conditions likely to lead to the evolution of complex life forms can be used to show that we are, probably, just one intelligent species among very many such species. For example, the well-known “Drake Equation” can be used to estimate that the most probable number of intelligent, communicating civilizations in our Milky Way galaxy will range from a few hundred to a few thousand. Since the observable universe contains 30 to 70 billions of trillions of stars organized in more than 80 billion galaxies, one can then estimate the presence of at least hundreds of billions of extraterrestrial civilizations in the universe if one assumes that the factors operating in many other galaxies to determine the probability of intelligent life are similar to those incorporated into the Drake Equation for calculations on the probability of intelligent life in the Milky Way. However, the calculations also show that, because of the vast distances between our solar system and even the nearest other star systems (for example, the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, is about 4.2 light years away from our solar system), the probability of our establishing direct contemporaneous (physical) contact with intelligent extraterrestrial life forms in the foreseeable future is small. Planet Earth is, hence, like an island of intelligent civilization in the amazing vastness of interstellar space. Could intelligent beings in distant extraterrestrial civilizations also be pondering the existential questions and creating belief systems (religions) for themselves?

The mystery deepens when we consider life on Planet Earth. Life emerged from inanimate organic and inorganic molecules via natural processes which have been named “abiogenesis”. It then evolved gradually towards ever greater levels of complexity and differentiation, eventually producing our intelligent and self-aware species. Darwin’s theory of evolution, based on the concept of natural selection, has shed light on evolutionary mechanisms at the scale of organisms and species. In summary, all living beings are engaged in a struggle for survival. The variations between the members of a species affect their chances of survival. Some variations enhance while others reduce the likelihood that a member will reproduce and thus contribute its genetic material to the next generation. Traits enhancing the probability of survival and reproduction will have a higher probability of being passed on to the next generation. Furthermore, mutations provide spontaneous variations. Some mutations will be favored by natural selection while others are disfavored. Based on this mechanism, one can conclude that biological evolution (a) manifests a directionality towards greater complexity and differentiation that to many poorly informed people may appear to defy the thermodynamic drive towards increasing entropy, (b) involves a lot of suffering through creative destruction, (c) continues today and will continue in the future, and (d) has predisposed human beings towards spirituality and religion which may enhance the probability of survival and may hence be favored by natural selection. The new scientific discipline of molecular genetics is now enriching our understanding of evolutionary processes by probing them at a much finer scale than was possible in Darwin’s time. For example, we have learned that (a) the human genome only contains approximately 20,000 to 25,000 protein-coding genes, (b) not only the variants of the same species but even completely different species are quite similar to each other in their genetic codes and differentiated by only a small percentage of their genes, (c) we can identify specific genes resulting in certain illnesses (such as Huntington’s disease) and predict reliably whether a person will eventually develop the disease, and (d) we can develop methods to manipulate genes at a molecular scale through genetic engineering to treat diseases caused by specific identified genetic defects. Does all this biological evolution have an ultimate destination, and perhaps even a sacred purpose? If yes, then who or what set this ultimate destination or sacred purpose? Even more importantly, how should society address the ethical issues raised by the rapid advances in molecular genetics, to maximize the constructive use of its tools while preventing their destructive use?

It is possible to base different rational belief systems on the same scientific knowledge. Here is my personal belief system. In considering questions answerable by science, I am a naturalist who is filled with an awesome sense of the immanence of the divine in the manifest beauty and complexity of our physical universe. However, in considering the existential questions, I intuit a Creative Force transcending what we are able to observe with the limited capabilities of our senses and our instrumentation, and thus the transcendence of the divine. I emphasize that this intuition is something of a “leap of faith” on my part. It neither follows rigorously from nor is it ruled out by the preceding discussion. But if I cannot refute it by empirical observation, then why not at least admit it as a possibility? Not because I am afraid of being an atheist (as some may think), but out of a desire to remain open to considering all possibilities about the unknown. Thus I describe myself as a “scientific theist” who believes in a simultaneously immanent and transcendent Creative Force but is agnostic about its attributes. A “pantheistic” perspective would equate the Deity to the immanent creativity manifested in our physical universe unfolding according to its physical laws. By contrast, my “panentheistic” perspective embraces also the possibility of a transcendent component of the Deity; albeit not resembling the anthropomorphic and patriarchal God of the religions in the Abrahamic tradition, but instead comprising a sense of potential force and intentionality. I realize also that, in doing so, I am just replacing a whole set of mysteries with one big Mystery, the Deity itself, but so be it!

In its practical application to our lives, such a belief system can inspire a sense of both humility and appreciation for our small but unique and precious places in the grander scheme of things, and an awareness of all that we do not know (some of which may be unknowable). This mindset can motivate one to lead an ethical life, to treat others fairly and compassionately, to enhance one’s tolerance and acceptance of others, and to help enhance social justice.