Jews, Christians and Muslims - at the roots of science
Contemporary science finds its roots in the work of ancient Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars. In the Middle Ages they translated the texts of ancient researchers. An exhibition in Berlin is dedicated to that era.
ELAINE HOWARD ECKLUND WANTS TO DISPEL MYTHS SURROUNDING RELIGIOUS RESISTANCE TO SCIENCE
Sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund studies the intersection of religion and science in Houston, a city with Texas-sized helpings of both: Joel Osteen preaches to packed houses in the old Houston Rockets stadium fifteen minutes from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world. Ecklund’s work at Rice University focuses on what happens when the two ways of knowing—what Stephen Jay Gould famously called “non-overlapping magisteria”—come into contact.
As useful as the data can often be, Ecklund’s interpretations and prescriptions often strain to “depoliticize” the sites of conflict, as if it’s even possible to depoliticize an issue like climate science in the United States. Her reasons are numerous, no doubt, but the factors that distort public discussion, money and power, are the kinds of forces that can warp research of this kind. If one proposes to survey and study the way that beliefs, framing, and social structures impact views on science and religion, one is likely to develop an explanation that relies heavily on those very factors.
While the general observer might be more tempted to blame resistance to climate science on well-documented lobbying and misinformation campaigns by fossil fuel interests—which target religious conservatives and the politicians who represent them with cultural kowtows—Ecklund elides that history, emphasizing comity and attributing the fraught politics to poor communication from those stressing the perils of climate change.
Still, Ecklund’s research remains valuable, providing insights that might help as part of a multi-dimensional effort to combat resistance to science. This fall, she spoke with Religion Dispatches in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey about the fallout from the storm and about how religious and scientific communities might be able to communicate more effectively.
It seems like a lot of your research is focused on demonstrating that despite the way that they’re generally talked about, science and religion are in fact compatible, or at least that people believe that they are. Is that fair?
It depends who you’re talking to and what you mean by science. We surveyed evangelical Christians and mainline Christians like Episcopals and Presbyterians. We also surveyed members of non-Christian religions—Jews, Muslims, and Hindus—and members of historically black Christian denominations. And Latinos, and all range of Catholics.
In the more conservative faith traditions—evangelicals and Orthodox Jews, for example—there is this sense that if science appears to be messing with the image of who God is, or who human beings are, then there are some tensions between faith and science. Think about an issue like human genetic reproductive technologies. Those kinds of technologies tend to challenge conceptualizations of what it means to be human, for some religious people.
So then they do pause. Some of them don’t go so far as saying, “science is all bad.” Where I think there’s a real myth is sometimes the scientific community thinks that all religious people are against them. Actually, amongst all Americans, esteem for science is very high. And it’s just that these hot-button issues get so much press, it kind of feels like, “Oh my God—they’re all science haters.”
I think it’s useful, especially in a restricted funding climate for science, that we kind of dispel that myth. We look at other kinds of survey measures, like “are you okay with your child marrying a scientist”—social scientists love to use that, because it’s a good measure of social distance—heck yeah, everyone would love their child to marry a scientist! These are highly educated people, who we hold in esteem. And “would you like your child to have more science education”—of course!
But especially the more conservative faith traditions do sometimes feel like scientists overstep their bounds, and that they go into philosophic and religious territory that they shouldn’t. There is some conflict between communities, if that makes sense. It’s different than saying, “all religion is bad,” or “all science is bad.” I think it’s really helpful to try to think through relationships between people-groups, and under what conditions they’re strained—and how might we use research to start to dispel some of those misconceptions they might have about each other.
Think feelings are important? You’re more right than you know.
Importantly, feelings are not an independent fabrication of the brain. They are the result of a cooperative partnership of body and brain, interacting by way of free-ranging chemical molecules and nerve pathways.
The alignment of pleasant and unpleasant feelings with, respectively, positive and negative ranges of homeostasis is a verified fact. Homeostasis in good or even optimal ranges expresses itself as well-being and even joy, while the happiness caused by love and friendship contributes to more efficient homeostasis and promotes health. The negative examples are just as clear. The stress associated with sadness is caused by calling into action the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland and by releasing molecules whose consequence is reducing homeostasis and actually damaging countless body parts such as blood vessels and muscular structures. Interestingly, the homeostatic burden of physical disease can activate the same hypothalamic-pituitary axis and cause release of dynorphin, a molecule that induces dysphoria.
The circularity of these operations is remarkable. On the face of it, mind and brain influence the body proper just as much as the body proper can influence the brain and the mind. They are merely two aspects of the very same being.
ejee kaachee chhe kaayaa man haiddo chhe paramal
e man varteene chaalo - ho jeere bhaai.......................1
The physical form is raw and unstable, and the (enlightened) mind/heart is fragrant(lively). Follow the promptings of such a mind/heart o living brothers!
satgur kahere: prem ras to atee ras meetthddaa
ane je koi dekhe chaakh
shah jo paave seer lagee
tenu hayddu deve saa(n)kh re....................95
The True Guide says: The essence of Divine Love is very delightful to whoever is fortunate to taste it. If one attains the Lord through the activity of the head(reflection, meditation, discrimination), this person's heart will provide the proof/evidence.
Hadith on the purification of the heart:
"There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart."
Homeostasis, Feelings, and the Rise of Culture
When people talk about the evolution and development of all that makes humans “unique,” one thing that often gets overlooked is our feelings. For neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, though, there can be no conversation about our humanity — or even our culture — without saving a seat at the table for this often-overlooked aspect of our nature.
“It is not possible to talk about thinking, intelligence, and creativity in any meaningful way without factoring in feelings,” writes Damasio in a new book titled The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures.
Rafael Campo on finding the humanity in medicine and science.
Rafael Campo speaks Nautilus’ language. A professor at Harvard Medical school and Lesley University, and a practicing physician, he has also published a-half dozen volumes of poetry and won a Guggenheim fellowship for his work. A passionate believer in experiencing patients’ illness through both a scientific and a humanist lens, Campo demonstrates a remarkable balance between a mechanistic curiosity and a deeply felt empathy. Science and art, he tells us, are asking the same kinds of questions. Which could have come straight from this magazine’s first editorial meeting.
One of your poems reads: “It was terrible, what the body told / I’d look inside another person’s mouth, / And see the desolation of the world.” Could you talk through what those lines mean?
Every encounter with a patient is a kind of demonstration of a weird paradox. I have all of this amazing technology, all of this book learning and medical training that has helped me understand the mechanics of the body. And yet that biomedical understanding doesn’t fully explicate the experience of suffering that my patients relate to me. What I was trying to get at with those lines of poetry is that juxtaposition: We are both limited by our bodies, and in this constant state of amazement as inhabitants of our bodies. Poetry has this astounding and terrible power to speak the unspeakable. It is the perfect medium for trying to express the conundrum that I experience every day in my work as a physician.
When does poetry become a tool for a doctor?
Medical technologies inevitably reach their limits. There isn’t going to be another round of chemotherapy. There’s not another medication to try. What do we still have to offer in those moments? What we have to offer is our hearts, our souls, our human connection. In those moments of reaching the limits of my knowledge I reach for other kinds of tools. I try to act as interpreter of my patient’s suffering. There are many inspiring precedents: Traditional healers in Native American cultures use performative language to effect a kind of healing for the afflicted. For ancient Greeks, catharsis was experienced through the dramatic reading of poetry, and was felt to be healing. There is a profound connection between our impulse to alleviate suffering in that very fundamental sense, and what poetry can do.
Shining a light on the spark that separates man from beast.
A physicist and a philosopher walk into a lab… no, this isn’t the start of a joke. It’s an everyday occurrence in the lab of Andrew Briggs, Professor of Nanomaterials at Oxford University. While working on how to exploit quantum mechanics to better store and process information, he also maintains an active interest in philosophy, and even has a philosopher working as part of his team. His interests extend into the nature of scientific inquiry, and to the nature of human uniqueness—hearkening back to the very first issue of Nautilus.
How does philosophy play a role in physics?
Well, for the last three years we’ve had a philosopher in residence in my laboratory. For all that time he sits in the same office as the others who are doing experimental work, which has proved an immensely fruitful interaction that works two ways. On the one hand, he has taken a great deal of interest in the experiments we’ve been doing and reshaped our philosophical understanding of them. Conversely he’s identified how we could do new experiments that would sharpen up the tests of some of those concepts. So he’s actually suggested experiments that we should do and he’s now got a major research program of his own in the philosophy of physics.
So what is this doing? Well, it’s helping those of us who are doing the experimental science and its theoretical basis to understand more clearly what the deeper questions are; to sharpen them up and to formulate them better. Conversely it’s prompting us to think of questions that maybe we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of.
Conversely, how are philosophers using physics in their work?
I think one of the most fundamental questions you can ask is what is the nature of reality? Because that underpins a lot of other questions that are worth asking. Is morality real? Is truth real? Is a relationship with God real? And if you’re going to ask questions like that sensibly, you’ve got to know what you mean by real and reality—a lot of this gets thrown up into the air with the advent of quantum theory, because quantum theory says that what you previously thought of as reality may need rethinking partly because there isn’t an objective thing out there whose properties are determined just by the object itself. It depends on the interaction with the observer. And so that means you’ve got to rethink what you mean by reality—and if you’re going to think about questions like that, you need all the technical resources that philosophers can bring to bear to be sure that your thinking is clear.
Sentient Robots, Conscious Spoons and Other Cheerful Follies
Contemporary science fiction seems obsessed with ideas such as downloading consciousness into silicon chips, sentient robots, conscious software and whatnot. Films like Her and Ex_Machina and recent episodes of series such as Black Mirror portray these ideas very matter-of-factly, desensitizing contemporary culture to their extraordinary implausibility.
The entertainment media takes its cue from the fact that research on artificial intelligence—an objectively measurable property that can unquestionably be engineered—is often conflated with artificial consciousness. The problem is that the presence of intelligence does not imply the presence of consciousness: whereas a computer may effectively emulate the information processing that occurs in a human brain, this does not mean that the calculations performed by the computer will be accompanied by private inner experience.
After all, the mere emulation of a phenomenon isn’t the phenomenon: I can emulate the physiology of kidney function in all its excruciating molecular details in my desktop computer, but this won’t make the computer urinate on my desk. Why, then, should the emulation of human information processing render a computer conscious?
When it comes to consciousness, even academics seem liable to lose touch with basic notions of plausibility. This is because, despite the prevailing assumption that consciousness is generated by arrangements of matter, we have no idea how to deduce the qualities of experience from physical parameters. There is nothing about mass, charge, spin or momentum that allows us to deduce how it feels to see red, to fall in love or to have a belly ache. Rationally, this abyssal explanatory gap should immediately lead us to question our prevailing assumptions about the nature of consciousness. Unfortunately, it has instead given license to a circus of arbitrary speculations about how to engineer, download and upload consciousness.
Already in the early 20th century, Bertrand Russell observed that science says nothing about the intrinsic nature of the physical world, but only about its structure and behavior. A contemporary of Russell’s, Sir Arthur Eddington, also observed that the only physical entity we have intrinsic access to is our own nervous system, whose nature is clearly experiential. Might this not be the case for the rest of the physical world as well? Under this “panpsychist” hypothesis, the explanatory gap disappears: consciousness isn’t generated by physical arrangements but, instead, is the intrinsic nature of the physical world. The latter, in turn, is merely the extrinsic appearance of conscious inner life.
Turns out, it’s one thing to use imaging tools to study something like vision; you can reliably control what your subjects see, and ensure each subject is presented with the same image to ensure consistency, and locate and study the visual cortex this way. But it’s a lot trickier to study what Professor Chambers terms “the interesting stuff”; the higher functions, such as emotions or self-control.
“The question is not ‘Where is happiness in the brain?’ That’s like asking ‘Where is the perception of the sound of a dog barking in the brain?’ The better question is ‘How does the brain support happiness? What networks and processes are used to give rise to it?’ ”
Professor Chambers also touched on another issue: What is happiness, in the technical sense? “What timescale are we talking about? Is it an immediate happiness, like ‘this pint is nice!’? Or is it long-term and general, like your children making you happy, or working toward a goal, achieving contentment in life, being calm and relaxed, things like that? You have several levels of functioning in the brain supporting all this, and how do you unpack that?”
You Perform Miracles Every Moment—If You Didn’t You’d Cease to Exist
One of the timeless claims of religions is that many saints, sages, and saviors can, seemingly, defy the laws of matter: change water into wine, cure the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, levitate, or manifest objects out of thin air.
But, according to the saints and sages themselves, those who have been described by thousands of people to have worked such miracles, we have the same ability that they do—we just don’t realize it (yet). In fact both the saints and science tell us that, without knowing how we do it, or even that we are doing it, we perform an astonishing miracle every moment: we continuously create our own physical body.
The saints and sages tell us that the dramatic miracles they work are but the conscious and deliberate extension of the same hidden laws of energy and thought that we use—without knowing how we use them—every day, every moment, to manifest our physical form.
We tend to think of our body as a fixed physical entity that exists regardless of anything we do. We might think that we can influence our body, for better or worse, by diet, exercise, and even by our thoughts and feelings, but we are pretty certain that birth—not a miracle—takes care of creating our body.
One certainly doesn’t see people routinely popping miraculously into or out of existence. Our bodies give every appearance of being fixed in their reality—especially when we, ah, try to lose weight—and the effects of any “normal” methods we use to change our body unfold very, very slowly.
You might be surprised to discover, then, that there are people—who are not saints or sages—who routinely undergo instantaneous physical change.
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It’s a tough time to defend religion. Respect for it has diminished in almost every corner of modern life — not just among atheists and intellectuals, but among the wider public, too. And the next generation of young people looks likely to be the most religiously unaffiliated demographic in recent memory.
There are good reasons for this discontent: continued revelations of abuse by priests and clerics, jihad campaigns against “infidels” and homegrown Christian hostility toward diversity and secular culture. This convergence of bad behavior and bad press has led many to echo the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson’s claim that “for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”
Despite the very real problems with religion — and my own historical skepticism toward it — I don’t subscribe to that view. I would like to argue here, in fact, that we still need religion. Perhaps a story is a good way to begin.
What is music? What happens when music touches us? If we could somehow float above planet Earth and hear the abundance and diversity of music rising up from around the globe — monks chanting in cloisters, rappers hip-hopping in Detroit, mothers humming lullabies in China, string quartets performing in Vienna, distant lovers singing of their longing — what would we be witnessing? What is it that enchants us in the mingling of sounds? What is happening that moves us so?
I am not sure these questions have reliable answers. Of course, we might say music comforts us, or calms us, or excites us, or inspires us, but we still wouldn’t be any nearer to answering what music is, or what is behind the mystery of its capacity to touch us in so many ways.
My purpose here is not to dream up answers to these questions about music’s mystery, but to suggest another way of experiencing what is behind the questions. In aid of this purpose I would like to point to another mystery, what the great 13th century sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi called “the Breath of the Merciful.” This is a mystery on the scale of the cosmos and its origins. Yet its awesome majesty can be experienced within the intimate mystery of music itself.
It’s hard to imagine infinity: something that is, by definition, larger than everything you can imagine. Physicists have to deal with the unimaginable every day, and have the tools to do so. But does their math describe reality?
Mathematicians have found a way to pack infinity into manageable equations and theorems as part of a class of mathematical oddities called “singularities.” To a mathematician, a singularity is simply a point where a function breaks down, as 1/x does when x gets close to zero. The defining property of a singular point is that it’s impossible to predict what happens beyond it. But are the singularities in mathematicians’ equations just an abstract concept? Or do they occur in nature?
The most famous case study in science, prior to Freud, was published in 1728 in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by the English surgeon William Cheselden, who attended Newton in his final illness. It bore a snappy title: “An Account of Some Observations Made by a Young Gentleman, Who Was Born Blind, or Lost His Sight so Early, That He Had no Remembrance of Ever Having Seen, and Was Couch’d between 13 and 14 Years of Age.”
The poor boy “was couch’d”—his cataracts removed—without anesthesia. Cheselden reported what he then saw:
When he first saw, he was so far from making any Judgment about Distances, that he thought all Objects whatever touch’d his Eyes, (as he express’d it) as what he felt, did his Skin . . . We thought he soon knew what Pictures represented, which were shew’d to him, but we found afterwards we were mistaken; for about two Months after he was couch’d, he discovered at once, they represented solid Bodies.
The boy saw, at first, patterns and colors pressed flat upon his eyes. Only weeks later did he learn to perform the magic that we daily take for granted: to inflate a flat pattern at the eye into a three-dimensional world.
The image at the eye has but two dimensions. Our visual world, vividly extending in three dimensions, is our holographic construction. We can catch ourselves in the act of holography each time we view a drawing of a Necker cube—a few lines on paper which we see as a cube, enclosing a volume, in three dimensions. That cubic volume in visual space is, of course, virtual. No one tries to use it for storage. But most of us—both lay and vision-science expert—believe that volumes in visual space usually depict, with high fidelity, the real volumes of physical space, volumes which can properly be used for storage.
The Holographic Principle and the Shadows That Bind
As is the human body, so is the cosmic body
As is the human mind, so is the cosmic mind.
As is the microcosm, so is the macrocosm.
As is the atom, so is the universe.
~ The Upanishads
In Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” prisoners are chained inside a cave, able to look at only shadows cast on the wall by puppeteers standing in front of a fire behind them. For these prisoners, the shadows—not the real objects that cast those shadows—represent their entire reality.
It’s only when prisoners are released from the cave that they understand the true nature of reality—that what they called a “book” or a “man” were really just shadows of the real objects projected onto a wall.
Plato’s point is that even for us, outside the cave, we may not perceive reality accurately. For example, we may confuse the name or image of an object in our mind with the actual object itself.
Physicists, however, are starting to see that “shadows” like those experienced by Plato’s prisoners may be a much more accurate representation of reality than the philosopher realized, and could help tie together previously unconnected physics concepts like spacetime, gravity and quantum entanglement.
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