[Print PDF] [Print WORD]
Our November Spiritual Reflection is the first of a three part series on Science and Faith from the perspective of contemplation and the spiritual life. With this offering we have entered into the fray of recent debates on this subject! Happy reading and I hope that this finds your life drawing ever closer to the God who created us. Peace, Dan and the MICAH Ministry Team
A new vision from the perspective of
science, and faith
by Daniel Wolpert
©2005 Daniel Wolpert, all rights reserved
At the Minnesota Institute of Contemplation and Healing we hope to reflect upon issues of the day from the perspective of the practice of prayer and the contemplative experience. Thus, we are presenting this first of a three part series on issues of science, faith, and our metaphysical view of the universe, as seen from the perspective of the Christian spiritual life. We would welcome comments, replies, and further reflections from any readers. Please feel free to share this with others. Please do not use it for commercial gain, and please do give proper credit where credit is due.
It seems that not a day passes when I do not read, or hear, something about the ‘clash’ of science and religion, usually the Christian religion. These two great pillars of our society, having once been partners in supporting our understanding of our universe, and ourselves, now seem to be weapons in yet another war between people who cannot and will not seek to understand each other.
From the faith perspective this conflict is primarily fueled by anxiety. To understand this let us examine the opening lines to the Christian Lord’s Prayer. This is a prayer that has nourished and sustained millions of people through to the present day. It begins: “Our Father in heaven…” Slowly but surely, over the last 500 years, this faith statement has been threatened by the cognitive dissonance that arises in the encounter with science. In the first place, heaven looks less and less like the biblical, or ‘churchy’ image of ‘the heavens’, and secondly, as we gaze out into the universe not only can we not find ‘the Father’, but in fact we seem to see no one. As the person of faith contemplates these apparent discrepancies several reactions are possible:
The first is to simply ignore science and stick with a statement that on the face of it makes no sense. This reaction requires that we go into a sort of denial, whereby we ignore the science that surrounds us in our everyday lives, and simply cling to faith statements we cannot explain. With this stance we are challenged to communicate with others about these questions of ultimate reality unless they adopt our point of view. We are afraid of questions that will bring the two worlds into conflict as we don’t know how to deal with the contradictions that arise other than through the process of ignoring. This fear leads to our second response.
Early on in the science and religion wars, the church responded to the conflict between the two views with violence in an attempt to simply wipe out a different understanding of reality. Today we still see people attacking science as somehow bad and an enemy of faith. They attempt to prove science ‘wrong’ or substitute a fake science, one that agrees with the basic faith stance. This second response, that of violent opposition, is still a form of denial because people who use this approach continue to live in a world that is made easier by science, and live in a reality that accepts science as valid when we need it, for example when we need medicine, drive a car, use a computer etc.
The third reaction to the conflict between science and religion is to try to keep faith but in a way that eliminates all of the parts of it that seem to conflict with science, or have been ‘proven untrue.’ This creates less cognitive dissonance but also often results in a watered down faith that is somewhat meaningless, or at least has little to say about the nature of God and the universe. In this view faith reduces to a vague sense of comfort that is detached from any significant metaphysical model or explanation. Another way of stating this is that science and faith are relegated to two unrelated spheres of influence and discourse (the rallying cry of this view is 'let science be science and faith be faith'). This leaves the universe fractured and defaults to science as the ‘true’ expositor of all that is ‘real.’
In this three part essay (of which this is the first section), I wish to offer an alternative to this never-ending and dualistic debate, an alternative that avoids these pitfalls. It is the way of contemplative integration. I propose that when the contemplative view of reality is added to the discussions that pit science against religion what emerges is a stunning and coherent synthesis in which the insights of both disciplines are revealed to be true pictures of our universe and our place in it. In fact, what I will assert in these pages is that rather than being at odds, the conclusions of religion and science actually prove the theorems of the other, and thus these disciplines can, and should, return to a harmonious relationship as they sing the music of the spheres.
Because the contemplative view lies at the center of my discussion, it seems appropriate that I begin with a simple description of this approach to the study of reality. Contemplatives are concerned with the nature, structure, and process of the mind and the mind as it apprehends reality. The contemplative view, which begins with the instruction, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), makes the observation and the assertion that our interaction with external reality comes through the mind, which can be defined generally as the process by which we organize the information we receive from the world through our senses.
Thus, contemplation as a practice is the detailed examination of our mental processes. It is both rigorous and scientific in that contemplation, if practiced properly, examines the contents of the mind over time, in an attempt to understand what happens as we integrate and filter the massive sensory input that we receive every second. Furthermore, contemplation, through this observation of mental contents, also seeks to say something about the creation around us, for it is through our minds that we come to know creation both directly, through observation, and indirectly, through revelations made to us by others who also have the faculty of mental processes. It is important to realize that both religion and science, as disciplines of study and practice, rely upon the mind to mediate their observations and conclusions about reality.
We also must recognize that this ‘mind mediating reality’ is so ever present, so ubiquitous, that we scarcely notice it. In this way we are stuck in the position of the fish, who are so totally immersed in water that they could hardly describe it to another creature, for to them it would not be seen as a distinct medium, but rather as simply the nature of ‘what is.’ Similarly, we too do not ‘see’ the action of the mind. Rather we simply assume its’ presence for we cannot imagine reality without it. Even if we discuss a ‘mindless’ reality we are using the mind to describe such a state!
An excellent example of this issue of the presence the mind’s action and its intense importance in any discourse about the nature of the world is the old philosophical question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make any sound? When I first heard this question as a child it intrigued me and I have begun to realize that it is not a trivial question. When we try to answer it, our arguments tend to go in several different directions:
The first is that we can simply answer the question ‘no.’ By doing this we recognize that it is our sensory apparatus that creates the signals in our brain that lead to the recognition of sound and therefore if there is no sensory apparatus to recognize the sound then there is no sound at all. There is no mind that apprehends “sound.”
However a counter argument states that ‘sound’ is actually created by the movement of air and that since there is air present when the tree falls, sound occurs whether or not there is a mind there to ‘hear’ the ‘sound.’ Someone who is taking this position could argue that if we put an artificial recording device near the falling tree, we could ‘prove’ this existence of sound by recording the ‘noise’ of the falling tree even though no one ‘heard’ it.
Neither of these answers address the fact that the question itself assumes the existence of a mind that has created an understanding of ‘sound.’ If there had never been a human mind that had come to understand sound, and had created the term for sound, then ‘sound’ would never have come into existence. The sound of the tree falling both exists and doesn’t exist because of the fact that mind has come to understand the nature of sound: it doesn’t exist because no mind is there to hear it, and it does exist because mind has created the objective concept ‘sound’. Without mind we really have no idea of what would or would not happen when a tree falls. The assumption of a static ‘objective’ reality that exists and continues to exist without the apprehension of mind is an assumption that cannot be substantiated from the contemplative perspective.
Thus, contemplation undermines the world-without-mind view. In the contemplatives’ reality, the mind always takes center stage and we cannot have a discussion about ‘just religion’ or ‘just science’ as if the mind didn’t exist as a primary partner in the conversation.
Furthermore, contemplation makes us aware that our minds are always making choices and distinctions as we sort out our sensory input. Another way of saying this is that the creation of duality, of two polar opposites, is one of the primary activities of the mind. This ability allows us to see ourselves as distinct from everything else in the world and to separate ‘this’ from ‘that’. Creating endless dualities is useful but also problematic, for it is the function that leads to war and violence as we identify one pole of the duality with ‘self’ and the other with ‘other’. Jesus understood this problem, which is why he instructed us to overcome duality by loving our enemy (Matthew 5:44). Thus another function of contemplation and the contemplative view is to help us see beyond these dualities, which after all are a construction of mental processes.
As with the presence of mind itself, these dualities, and their constant construction, solidification, and reinforcement, are something that we take for granted. This can be seen in the nature of the argument between science and religion. If one is correct, than the other must be wrong. Or if they are both somehow correct, then they must be talking about different things, or different categories of discourse. This dualism is hardly questioned because dualisms are how we are trained to see reality. However, when we bring the contemplative view into the discussion, what is revealed is that there is a possibility of understanding the arguments between these two realms in a different way, a third way, a way of integration and reconciliation, the way that is the path of peace.
Currently there are three general areas of discourse where science and religion are locked in a destructive and dualistic conflict, these are: discussions related to time, to space, and to knowledge. The three issues, and their dualistic couplets, that are most representative of each area are Evolution vs. Creation: Heaven, Hell, and the Structure of the Universe: and the question of the Knowledge of God- who is God, and universal and particular salvation. In these essays, I will apply the contemplative view to the current arguments in these three areas to see if, in the end, I can arrive at a new view of reality that holds both the visions of science and the visions of the Christian faith. My assumption is that this new view can, and should, be tested using either the methods of faith or the methods of science.
This vision of reality is one that I hope can become the modern substitute to the ancient “three-story universe” view that has sustained our faith yet which has become obsolete, untenable, and even dangerous. We see the problem that holding onto this old view creates when we see religious people who cling to the ancient world-view in spite of evidence to the contrary, or when we see people with a scientific mindset criticizing religion because it cannot offer any reasonable theory of reality. Creating such a substitute would be of immeasurable value to people of faith because it would give them a sense of confidence in their ability to both understand and articulate their perspective of reality. Furthermore it would relieve them of the fear and anxiety that currently is the source of much discomfort, strife, discord, and even violence.
“How old is the earth?” asked a young man who had come to the meeting of “Theology on Tap”. Held at our local university, this program invited an open discussion of any question of faith among students, members of the community, and several religious leaders. The questioner, a student at the university, was someone I have known for several years. His major is in the field of modern scientific agriculture, and he also happened to be very involved in the campus ministry program. His life and his question was a living example of the conflict between faith and science.
From his perspective there were only two possible answers, depending on whether ‘science’ or ‘faith’ was the final arbiter of ‘truth.’ Either the earth is 6 billion years old (the scientific answer), or the earth is 6000 years old (a literalistic faith answer). In addition to this dilemma, behind his first question lay other questions related to the topics of evolution and the origin of species.
Those on either side of these arguments make one very basic assumption about the nature of time: Time is an objective entity that proceeds in a linear fashion and is constant both into the future and into the past. Under this assumption, time is a process independent of mind. Beginning with this assumption, as the young man and, as far as I can tell, almost all who engage in this argument do, results in being trapped within the dualism of conflicting faith and science; and the only way out is to resort to one of the three methods of resolution that I described at the beginning of the essay.
However, the contemplative perspective will not allow this assumption to go unexamined. And it is with such an examination that I begin my discussion of a new view.
“How much time passes when you are asleep?” Assuming that you sleep soundly, your experience is that very little, if any time passes. You fall asleep and awaken seemingly seconds later. Perhaps a dream might extend your sense of time passing, but still the length of time you experience is brief. Now imagine that you are someone sitting in the room watching the person sleep – and that you manage to say awake all night! In this case you experience many hours passing.
When we imagine these two people, we usually say, the sleeping person is ‘wrong’ about their assessment of time, and that ‘really’ eight hours has passed with only one person aware of those hours. This approach of labeling the two experiences, one right, one wrong, works for us in the world. However what would be a more accurate way of stating the conclusion? We could say that time appears to act in a manner that is constant and linear, when there is a human mind present to observe it. Because, if there was no other human mind on earth, and no devices created by human minds present, there would be no way to distinguish between the sleeping person’s assessment that time had sped up while they were asleep, and the assertion that time moved at the same rate but the sleeping person didn’t notice. Thus, the experience of the mind, and the presence of the mind are integral to our experience, description, and conclusions about time.
Now let us turn to the discussion of evolutionary science, and the issue of the age of both the earth and the universe, applying the above observations. The perspective of science makes statements about geologic time, for example, “the earth is six billion years old.” From the above discussion, two things are clear. One: the statement assumes that time moves in the regular and linear manner that we observe when we are awake. Secondly: what this statement really wishes to communicate is: ‘if there were human minds present to observe the passage of time, then they would observe that six billion years would have passed.’
At this point I need to digress and say something about the emergence of the human mind. I was recently at an exhibit of the history of ancient Greek art. The earliest pieces of art in this exhibit were about 5500 years old and the later pieces were 2000 years old. The change that the art underwent from the earliest pieces to the latest pieces was fascinating. The early pieces showed very basic shapes and colors of people and animals. The faces had very little detail; the animals were like stick figures. They were similar to the cave paintings that many are familiar with. By contrast, the later pieces were the incredibly detailed paintings and pottery that often define ‘ancient Greek art’. Moving through the exhibit and observing these changes, you could watch the human mind becoming clearer, more able to understand and process its environment; in the mirror of the art you could see the human mind coming into existence. Looking at art from any culture around the world would yield the same result. In the period from 4000-500BC there is a radical change in the human minds’ ability to observe and depict its surroundings.
Now, using the observations above, let us examine the young man’s question from both the faith perspective and the scientific perspective using the contemplative lens: The faith perspective tells us that God created the world in seven ‘days,’ with the human being coming to being on the sixth day (see Genesis 1). Furthermore the Bible also describes a radical change in the nature of the human consciousness from a state in which they do not even know that they are naked, to a state of ‘knowledge’ in which they are much more aware and clear about themselves and the nature of the environment. (see Genesis 2-3)
Therefore, for the first five ‘days’ of creation the only mind that was present in the universe was the mind of God. Now the scripture tells us numerous things about the mind of God. First of all, God is seen and described as a ‘person,’ that is, God has mental attributes such that we can recognize God’s mind as ‘human’ but different. These differences are described by statements which claim that Gods thoughts are not our thoughts, and that for God one day is like a thousand years in our sight.(see Isaiah 55:8-9 and Psalm 90:4) Therefore, as no created human being was present during those first days, it was a period of time similar to the one experienced by our sound sleeper, it could have been very ‘long’, it could have been very ‘short’, but either way we cannot make any categorical statements about it, except to say that God’s mind was present to experience that time, and that God’s mind experienced it in a way unique to God.
Furthermore, it is clear that once the human mind was created there was a period of time that the human being spent without ‘knowledge,’ and this was followed by the period of historical time during which the human ‘knew’ of it’s existence. For the former time (without knowledge) we again cannot definitively say how long that lasted because it appears that human being probably could not categorize time in the same way that we can now, given they couldn’t even assess their state of dress or undress! Interestingly, the later time, the time that has passed since ‘knowledge’ entered the world, correlates very closely to the artistic record that I described above.
So, the faith perspective tells us that in the history of the world there are God’s ‘five days,’ followed by a period of time when humans exist but have no ‘knowledge,’ and then what we call historical time.
Scientific statements about the length of the earth make the following claims. First, the earth is several billion years old. For most of this time the earth was either lifeless or was populated by creatures without human minds. Then at some point within the last million or so years, a human-like being appeared whose mind, was definitely different from ours. Finally, in very recent time there developed humans whose cerebral cortex was such that it could think in much the same way as we do. Again, let us apply the contemplative perspective to these assessments.
As I have discussed the first statement about the age of the earth really should be put as follows: if there was a human mind to observe the time, then several billion years would have passed. For us, as humans in the present, these billions of years are ‘dark time,’ we really have no access to, or experience of, them. The movies and pictures that we create of this time are the visions of the human mind. However, the evidence of and for this time is very real and compelling. As I stated above, the assumption that the sleeper is wrong about the passage of time is a very good and workable assumption.
Therefore what can we say that this discovery of an ancient time ‘proves?’
What we must conclude is that if such a time unfolded in the manner in which the scientific vision claims, if it was experienced as a ‘real’ reality, then we must say that there needed to be a human mind, or a human-like mind, to experience such a time. And since we have no evidence or claims that a created human mind was there, then it seems only reasonable that the scientific claims about pre-historic time, claims that assert a real period of time that is experienced in a manner akin to how we experience time, proves the existence of the mind of God and dovetails beautifully with the description of the world as made by the claim of faith.
Furthermore, the description of the appearance and nature of the human being also fits well with the description of faith. For a period of time, both known from our perspective as we project our minds into that time, and unknown from the perspective of a human mind which doesn’t “know,” the human existed in a state where it’s sense of self awareness, and thus also its awareness of the environment was very dim, if it existed at all. Then at some point, which we are much clearer about, the human mind changed such that it’s self awareness, and thus also its ability to experience and describe its environment was transformed in a radical way, and everything became clear, just like the Greek pots, and just as the Bible states. This point was the beginning of true dated history, the only period of time that is not dark to our mental experience.
Thus in answering the young man who’s question began this section, we claim that the earth is both old and young, depending upon whose mind is watching! When God watches, or when we project our minds into the past, the earth is very old. However when our mind is present and awake within actual time, the earth appears to be very young.
From this conclusion we can move to a discussion about the issue of Evolution and the creation of the species, and we will see that very similar issues are at play.
The scientific perspective asserts that for the millions of years during which there was no human mind on earth, thousands of different kinds of creatures came and went. Eventually the human creature appeared and, in time, arrived at the state that we experience today. As with our previous discussion, the claims made by this model of evolution are that if a human mind were present, the world would have looked like the movie Jurassic Park, and it would have gone on for a long time. The scientific perspective also claims that the creation of species is something that has only happened before the human mind in its current condition came into existence. Since the time that humanity ‘became aware’ there has been no creation of a new species, and such an event is not something that anyone has been able to recreate in the lab (although the event of genetic engineering is certainly moving us in a direction where such an act can be envisioned).
From the faith perspective, we are told in the first chapter of Genesis, that, before the human was created, God brought forth many creatures on the lands and in the seas and in the air. These creatures also existed before a human mind, in its current state, was in existence, and they existed and spent time on earth for several ‘days’ the length of which was experienced only by God. Finally, once humans in their current form were created, we are told that God didn’t create any more creatures, and the creative acts and action of God shifted to arena of human endeavor, i.e. the creation and evolution of human society.
As with the earlier discussion of the age of the earth, we see that these descriptions are really one and the same. If indeed the earth spent a lot of time looking like Jurassic Park, then the only one who could have observed such events, the only mind that could have apprehended such a reality, and thus experienced it as reality, is the mind of God. What evolutionary science is thus describing and presenting to us, is the creative splendor and play of the divine mind.
What we can see about the beauty of the method of contemplative integration is that if either the scientist, or the person of faith, denies the view of the other then they risk destroying their own position. For the scientist to deny the presence of a mind to view the ancient earth is essentially to claim that such an earth did not exist in any real or meaningful way. On the other hand, for the person of faith to deny the possibility of the scientific view is to deny the infinite creative power of the mind of God, something that undermines the essential assertions of faith.
And so time and mind have interacted here on earth to create the drama of our existence, but what about the heavens, what do we see and experience as we turn our gaze outward? This is the topic of the second section of this essay.
[Return to top of page]