Sunday, June 26, 2011

Science and Religion: Convergence, Synergy and the Clash of Cultures

For me, one of the most interesting synergies of the twenty-first century is the convergence of psychology, science and metaphysics or religion. Of course, this is nothing new, but is the inevitable process of millenial seeking after the 'truths' of what our 'realities' are. What is interesting is the extent to which the different approaches, Eastern and Western, introspective and extrospective, ancient and modern - science on one hand, metaphysics on the other, with psychology somewhere in the middle - are increasingly relevant to each other, and to ever broader swaths of an awakening humanity, irrespective of the often-time violent reactions to such abruptly morphing worldviews.

In 1962, Werner Heisenberg, one of the fathers of quantum theory, observed:
"(I)rrespective of the location and cultural tradition of (the) group, the spirit of modern physics will penetrate into the minds of many people and will connect itself in different ways with the older traditions. What will be the outcome of this impact of a spectial branch of modern science on different powerful old traditions? In those parts of the world in which modern science has been developed the primary interest has been directed for a long time toward practical activity industry and engineering combined with a rational analysis of the outer and inner conditions for such activity. Such people will find it rather easy to cope with the new ideas since they have had time for a slow and gradual adjustment to the modern scientific methods of thinking."

"In other parts of the world these ideas would be confronted with the religious and philosophical foundations of the native culture. Since it is true that the results of modern physics do touch such fundamental concepts as reality space and time, the confrontation may lead to entirely new developments which cannot yet be foreseen. One characteristic feature of this meeting between modern science and the older methods of thinking will be its complete internationality. In this exchange of thoughts the one side, the old tradition, will be different in the different parts of the world, but the other side will be the same everywhere and therefore the results of this exchange will be spread over all areas in which the discussion takes place."
[Heisenberg, "Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science," pp. 1-2.]

Heisenberg's views, written just as the collision of Eastern wisdom traditions with Western science first impacted the wider worldviews of the many varied cultures involved, were prescient indeed. Fifty years later, the results of the impact -both positive and negative - are still shaking out.

Amongst the leading thinkers involved in the synthesis of ancient wisdom traditions with modern science is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. In his intriguing book, "The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality," he writes:
"When I speak with open-minded scientists and philosophers of science, it is clear that they have a deeply nuanced understanding and a recognition of the limits of scientific knowledge. At the same time, there are many people, both scientists and nonscientists, who appear to believe that all aspects of reality must and will fall within the scope of science."

"The assumption is sometimes made that, as society progresses, science will continually reveal the falsehoods of our beliefs - particularly religious beliefs - so that an enlightened secular society can eventually emerge."

"In this view," he observes, "science is viewed as having disproved many of the claims of religion, such as the existence of God, grace, and the eternal soul. And within this conceptual framework, anything that is not proven or affirmed by science is somehow either false or insignificant. Such views are effectively philosophical assumptions that reflect their holders' metaphysical prejudices."

"Just as we must avoid dogmatism in science," he cautions, "we must ensure that spirituality is free from the same limitations."
 "Clearly," the Dalai Lama concludes, "this (metaphysical) paradigm does not and cannot exhaust all aspects of reality, in particular the nature of human existence."
"In addition to the objective world of matter, which science is masterful at exploring," he points out, "there exists the subjective world of feelings, emotions, thoughts and the values and spiritual aspirations based on them. If we treat this realm as though it had no constitutive role in our understanding of reality, we lose the richness of our own existence and our understanding cannot be comprehensive. Reality, including our own existence, is so much more complex than objective scientific materialism allows." (Emphasis added.)
[Dalai Lama, "The Universe in a Single Atom," pp. 38-39.]
Much of the religious fundamentalism we now see - particularly in the Muslim World, as well as in the United States - appears to me to be an unfortunate fallout from the clash of modern scientific and traditional religious worldviews. Both worldviews can be dogmatic, and dogmatism (whether religious, political, and yes, religious) can and does breed violence.

Such reactions, with their inherent violence, are perhaps predictable and understandable, yet one hopes that as this synthesis of worldviews continues -as it inevitably will - the dogmatism of religious violence will come to be seen as an anachronism as poisonous to humanity's growth and development as is blind 'scientism.' World peace, and humanity's future is dependent on peace.

As the committed pacifist and most pre-eminent scientist of the modern age, Albert Einstein, once famously observed: "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."

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