Book review: Science and the Spiritual Quest

Nearly a decade and a half ago, an elite group of scientists gathered in Berkeley, California, to participate in a groundbreaking project called Science and the Spiritual Quest. Their object was to share insights from science’s front lines about the ways that the scientific and spiritual lives could be integrated. Science and the Spiritual Quest: New Essays by Leading Scientists (Routledge, 2002) is a product of that meeting. From the development of artificial realities to the implications of Darwinian evolution, the essays contained within its pages are thought-provoking investigations into how science can teach us about the spirit.

Written for an educated lay readership, Science and the Spiritual Quest contains 16 essays by leading scientists in widely divergent fields, from cosmology and astrophysics (Bruno Guiderdoni, Paris Institute of Astrophysics) to molecular biology (Arthur Peacocke, Oxford University) and even psychiatry (Kenneth S. Kendler, Medical College of Virginia). Each of the essays is notably personal, reflecting the author’s own viewpoints and convictions, often gained over a lifetime of research, publication, and introspection.

A number of important themes wend their way through the book’s pages, connecting disparate essays and lending a feeling of unity to the work as a whole. Perhaps the most important of these is an awareness that science has very real limitations – that there are, in fact, areas of experience and reality that are not completely accessible to investigation using the scientific method. In an introductory interview by theologian Philip Clayton, for instance, theoretical physicist Geoffrey F. Chew recalls being beset as a graduate student by a growing realization that the philosophical implications of quantum physics were simply not answerable by conventional scientific means.

Introductory interviews, conducted alternately by Clayton and journalist Gordy Slack, precede each of the book’s chapters, often giving the scientist-authors more room to express their gut-level views than the actual essays themselves. It is in these interviews that the authors divulge their religious backgrounds and current convictions, ranging from Muslim to Quaker to atheist, and where they describe in layman’s terms the way their research has affected their spiritual lives. Some of these interviews are touching, and one or two are even dramatic – for example, molecular biologist Martinez J. Hewlett describes surviving a heart attack and triple-bypass surgery, and afterwards finding new religious meaning in the Catholic church.

Following a brief preface by co-editor Kirk Wegter-McNelly, the book begins with an introduction by W. Mark Richardson. After describing the context that gave rise to the essays – including a 1998 Newsweek cover story – Richardson outlines a typology for different approaches to the intersection of science and spirituality. This typology is intended to be a useful guide for interpreting the essays that comprise most of the book, although it’s not clear in the final analysis that the authors fit any of his types cleanly.

The book’s first essay, by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a Quaker radio astronomer, connects the open, inquisitive spirit of Quakerism with the experimental mindset of science. The heart of the essay is an investigation into the problem of evil. Burnell doesn’t approve of any of the conventional answers, stating with conviction that if God is both loving and in charge of the world, the problem of evil is a very real one indeed. Poignantly, her own solution is that God chooses not to intervene in the world, allowing human beings the chance to be God’s only agents in a chaotic universe. Thus, “(w)hen there is suffering God suffers too.”

The next essay, by Kenneth S. Kendler, focuses on Jewish conceptions of God and the apparent randomness of genetic mutations that lead to psychiatric illness. Kendler professes to believe both that evolution is truly random and that God is loving and just. The solution to the problem of evil, exemplifying the Jewish tradition of personal, even shockingly intimate relations with God, is to demand explanations: “I challenge You to explain Yourself.”

The third essay, by Wired magazine co-founder and evangelical Christian Kevin Kelly, treats the theological implications of robotics research, implying that humans will soon learn what it is like to play God and create new life. Astronomer Allan Sandage in the fourth essay repudiates the existentialism and nihilism of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and Camus, along the way claiming that “very little of what each of us believes, both inside and outside of science, in fact has sufficient evidence.” Jewish physicist Cyril Domb highlights the distinction between repeatable events – the purview of science – and unique, providential events such as answered prayers or miracles in Chapter Five. Domb argues that evidence for a creator is abundant in the orderliness of nature.

In the following chapter, Martinez J. Hewlett argues for a difference between scientific causality, which implies only predictability, and classical causality, which refers to the dependence of one event on another. The over-reliance on scientific causality for explaining nature has led to the eclipsing of human subjectivity. Physicist Robert B. Griffiths uses the next chapter to make a lucid argument that thermodynamic phenomena such as entropy cannot be easily understood by reducing them to the interactions of particles. Similarly, human conscious experience is best understood at its own level of analysis – that is, moral free agency.

Chapter Eight is a fascinating argument by information scientist Mitchell P. Marcus that the world of information is ontologically independent of the world of matter, and that the world of information is actually primary. This, he explains, dovetails with Jewish Kabbalah mysticism, which asserts that God’s word – the informational speech of the creator – is the underlying basis for all reality. Bruno Guiderdoni follows up with a lengthy essay on Islam and cosmology, while Chapter 10 features philosopher Michael Ruse, a stout agnostic, arguing that Darwinism in no way implies atheism. Geoffrey Chew claims that free will is possible in a short but unfortunately impenetrable Chapter 11.

Chapter 12 features Michael A. Arbib, an atheist but also a theologian, outlining a functional variety of free will he calls the “decisionist view of human freedom.” While the essay is engaging, the argument that human free will exists in a social and political sense, but not an absolute one, seems – as such arguments usually do – a bit disingenuous.

Andrei Linde, a Stanford physicist, writes the following essay. In it, he describes how the “inflationary universe” model he helped articulate implies an infinite number of universes, with different laws of physics in each one. The inflationary universe is “immortal,” meaning that the Big Bang is not necessarily the equivalent of Genesis 1:1. While this essay is dense and filled with technical details, it’s also a powerful argument for a much more complex vision of reality than we’re used to. This vision even includes consciousness as one of its basic components, a detail that many scientists might balk at but which jibes much more clearly with our actual subjective experience than pure materialist models do.

Chapter 14, by cognitive scientist Brian Cantwell Smith, son of the famous religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, provides another take on the view that the universe may be fundamentally more information than matter. Despite a deep religious agnosticism, Smith portrays semiotics as the root reality of our subjective lives, joining Linde in privileging the basic data of our own sense experiences over the abstract concepts of physics and the sciences.

DNA researcher and Anglican priest Arthur Peacocke makes an elegant claim in Chapter 15 that religious symbolism is like the language of mathematics: it makes no sense until you’ve invested time and effort in learning it. Peacocke also argues that greater scientific awareness of human biology actually leads to greater credibility for the idea of a panentheistic God.

The final essay, by physicist George Sudarshan, presents the book’s only Hindu perspective. One of the discoverers of the weak atomic force – one of the four basic physical forces in nature – Sudarshan uses Hindu ideas about the cyclical nature of reality to articulate a view of God that allows for constant revelation that is more like memory: the more we discover about God and nature, the more we realize what we’ve always known. Sudarshan is unique among the contributors in explicitly acknowledging that he feels as if God is guiding his life; coincidences and seemingly unpleasant events are actually opportunities for growth and new knowledge, and setbacks are quite literally part of a greater plan.

Concluding with a short summarizing essay by Philip Clayton, this book presents a strikingly adept, philosophically sophisticated overview of different scientists’ quests for spiritual wisdom. While the respectable latter chapters are dominated by writers of a self-consciously atheistic or agnostic bent, the earlier essays tend to be written by more deeply (if unconventionally) spiritual scientists, and these chapters exhibit a kind of lucidity in their treatments of religion that is probably the result of the authors’ comfort with spiritual subject matter. Unlike many books containing essays by disparate authors, this work rewards reading straight through; the progression of ideas in the different chapters creates a cumulative effect, building on layers of themes to bring the reader along on a remarkably profound and articulate ride.

Ultimately, the appeal to humility and the limitations of science is the binding thread running through the book, remarkable for a work generated by leading scientists. The acknowledgment of the human subjective experience is deeply refreshing, a theme perhaps best reflected in Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s description of attending a Quaker meeting; after days of tormenting herself with intellectual questions about the meaning of the universe and whether God was real, she would go to a meeting and be “totally taken by the sense of the presence of God. All those academic questions just floated miles away.” This book takes a good stab at approaching both.

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